Life is Beta by Ha-Yong Bak is a collection of stories that should shock readers and bend a few minds. Might as well but a trigger warning first. Are you a reader offended by graphic descriptions of cannibalism? If you proudly answered without intending to make a pun “No, I can stomach it,” proceed to the next level. Are you bothered by third parties feeding parts of bodies to the victims themselves? This is people chewing on their own body parts carried to an extreme. Still with us? If not; if you decided finger food should not literally be fingers, you should pass on this collection BUT you will miss some good, twisted writing. Not everything is about cannibalism but it is a frequently appearing element. On the positive side, gratuitous and offensive sex is absent. Maybe cannibalism breaks the mood.
Without being asked, I will offer some organizational advice to this author. Opening the table of contents, readers will see Chapters 1, 2, 3 …20. After that, there are twenty-two short stories. It seems that the first twenty chapters might have some connecting thread while the remaining short stories could stand alone. This is almost true and I would like to see the twenty-two stories first. They are self-contained and keep the reader interest because the reader knows each one will have a twist. A few have minor twists the reader might anticipate. Others will surprise or shock. Yet others are completely twisted from beginning to end. I believe these self-contained stories would be an excellent introduction to the far more complex tale told by the first twenty chapters.
There is not a single connecting thread tying the first twenty chapters together. There are several different threads that pop up in different chapters to distract and amuse readers. A character in chapter one may not appear again until chapter four and even then the characters who reappear may not be identified by name. There will be an implication that the two characters are either one and the same or are related in some way. That made reading this story an adventure and a mystery for me. Bak also redefines some English words in new ways to fit the story. This is not the author making language errors; this is the author practicing his art.
There is no reason for me to attempt to make comments about each story. There are no stories to which I would say “meh …” They are all good. I give five stars to the collection primarily because of the artistry in the first twenty chapters but do not “highly recommend” it out of consideration for the sensitivity of readers to some rather abhorrent mental images.
And there is the final bar I use to evaluate everything I read. What would my son (sixteen years old) say? I don’t know. I won’t encourage him to read this; I won’t recommend he read it despite how good some of it is. But my son has access to all my Kindle material and if he reads it, I have no problem talking with him about why the quality of writing is good.