Jung Young Moon - A tour-de-force in automatic writing from South Korea’s eccentric, award-winning contemporary master delves into subconscious worlds blending reality and imagination
Jung Young Moon, Vaseline Buddha, Trans. by Yewon Jung, Deep Vellum, 2016.
A tour-de-force in automatic writing from South Korea’s eccentric, award-winning contemporary master delves into subconscious worlds blending reality and imagination.
The funeral of a goldfish named Kierkegaard, the sleepless narrator thwarting a would-be thief outside his moonlit window, a night spent with rats in a Paris hotel—Korea’s Jung Young Moon, often compared to Kafka and Beckett, lets his mind wander in this masterpiece of automatic writing, delving into the subconscious and the imagination to explore the very nature of reality.
Indeed, most readers will find Vaseline- Buddha hard to read: an endless, unfiltered flow of thoughts and memories, strange, ordinary, complicated, simple, philosophical, trivial. After all, that is exactly what most of our thoughts are like—long-winded sentences, a jungle of words, the more complex the grammar, the less clear the meaning—no storyline, no noteworthy characters, no emotional development. And after fifty pages at most, when the author-narrator is still worrying about how he could begin this novel in an appropriate manner, fans of easy-reading literature will have already thrown in the towel.
After explaining explicitly to the reader what kind of text he wants to write: “something that is not even anything, or something that is not even not anything,” and therefore doing his very best to muddle and bungle everything that could possibly develop into a cohesive story, the middle-aged, male, first-person narrator who is constantly suffering from insomnia and vertigo, takes us on an erratic journey through real, unreal, and surreal geographical and mental spaces.
In Nepal, he enjoys an apple, completely calm, while his plane almost crashes into the mountains. In a small provincial town in France, he sees an inflatable rubber dolphin drifting by on the river. In Budapest, he discovers a set of false teeth on a snow-covered bench near the Royal Palace. In Paris, he desperately tries to ignore the omnipresent Eiffel Tower. In New York, he spends most of his time watching TV in his hotel room. In Venice, on the mist-shrouded Piazza San Marco, he catches sight of a little girl holding a blue balloon in her hand. In Amsterdam, he meets a stoned-looking woman with spinach between her teeth. In Berlin, he watches a young woman jumping up and down on a trampoline in a park at midnight. Nothing really spectacular, but everything slightly odd, one might think.
Despite of, no, thanks to the strict rejection of conventional narrative patterns, Vaseline-Buddha is truly meaningful literature. What makes this novel so fascinating is its permanent liminality and ambiguity: it is exactly the completely obvious which remains ultimately cryptic; it is exactly the linguistic hyper-precision which leads to confusion; it is exactly the “boring” stuff which becomes thrilling at another level; and it is exactly the humorous, ironic attitude of the author-narrator which proves his deep seriousness.
If we trust in the benevolence of author Jung Young Moon, there are many possible readings of this novel: we can read it from the perspective of depth psychology, existentialism, deconstruction, or Zen Buddhism. But there is never the need to interpret or understand anything. This text does not want to be studied, it wants to be experienced. For Jung, looking for truth does not mean creating order. It means facing the inevitable, never-ending chaos of mind. In this sense, he invites us to join his open meditation: we don’t have access to anything outside the human mind, so let’s just watch the human mind as it is. The chaos will remain, but the inner eye will become clear. - Jan Dirks
“If someone in the future asks in frustration, “What has Korean literature been up to?” We can quietly hand him Vaseline Buddha.” — Pak Mingyu
“Reality and fantasy, memories and dreams, Asia and Europe, all are equal partners in this literary meditation” — Christoph Hartner
“One enters into a kind of serenity when we delve into the book. I find that eccentrics like [Jung] are needed in literature.” — Achim Stanislawski
One day, when the night was giving way to dawn and everything was still immersed in darkness, I sat on a windowsill in the house I lived in, unable to sleep, thinking vaguely that I would write a story. I didn’t know at all where or what the story, if it could be called a story, would head toward, and neither did I want to know in advance, and for the time being, there was nothing that told me where or what. So for the time being, I was right to think that it could turn into a story, but it was possible that it wouldn’t turn into a story at all.
Anyhow, something happened a little before I began thinking such things, something so trivial that you could hardly say that anything had happened at all; I heard a very small sound coming from outside the kitchen window, and straining my ears for the sound for a moment, I thought it was the sound of raindrops, but it didn’t continue at regular intervals like the sound of raindrops. After a little while, I went to the bedroom windowsill and looked out the window through the curtains but it wasn’t raining, and with a certain thought in my mind, I went to the kitchen where the sound had come from, and hid myself behind a wall, and saw someone climbing up toward my bedroom window. It seemed that he was climbing up the gas pipes, and he looked like a moving shadow. It was an astonishing sight but I didn’t cry out because I felt as if I were dreaming. He was taking great care not to wake the person inside, whom he thought was sound asleep.
After a little while, I saw him trying to open the window, and I stuck my face out quietly so as not to startle him, but at that moment he saw my face and was so startled that he fell to the ground. I hadn’t had the slightest intention of startling him, so I felt terrible, as if I had made him fall even though I hadn’t, and above all, I wondered if he was all right, having fallen to the ground. He picked himself up at once, but was limping slightly, probably with a strained ankle, and went across the small yard and tried to climb over the wall which wasn’t so high, which didn’t look easy, either. I wished I could help him climb over the wall by giving him a leg-up. After several attempts, he finally clambered up the wall and disappeared into the darkness after throwing one last look in my direction, but I couldn’t tell if he looked at me with reproach as he disappeared into the darkness.
Vaseline Buddha begins with the narrator: "thinking vaguely I would write a story" -- and pretty much continues that way. While he doesn't force the issue, it's nevertheless a constant preöccupation -- recording stories and memories and anecdotes, but also letting them shape themselves, rather than imposing tight authorial control over them.
I'm making up new stories by mixing up my memories and thoughts, and linking together things that have nothing to do with each other.
It's that kind of book, for better and worse, a globe-spanning amble -- the narrator gets around, and much of what he recounts happens abroad -- that's constantly veering off in new directions and circling back to previous thoughts and recollections.
Little here is hard and fast; memories are vague and malleable, and Jung plays that for all it's worth. And the narrator is willing to drift with the flow -- wherever his writing will take him. So even regarding the title: A Cat Walking on Piano Keys was in the running -- and he also thinks (nearing the end):
Untitled could be a fitting title for this story, which I feel says a lot about a lot of things, but really hasn't said anything at all.
As to the one he finally settles on, it's hardly settled:
I thought I could give the title Vaseline Buddha -- the name was something that could be given to something indefinable, something unnamable, and also meant untitled -- to what I was writing, but as soon as I did, I though that it wasn't a good idea
The book is slippery like that -- ironic, of course, in a now-printed book, where every last word is fixed in place -- Jung constantly led from one thing to the next:
Anecdotes in my memories and images in my imagination dance on a stage from which time, which flows in one direction, has made its exit.
He does recount episodes and stories -- but even here tends to try to undermine them, sometimes explicitly, as in one carefully built-up tale set in Budapest, finally admitting: "But this unlikely story isn't true" (and then, of course, not leaving it at that either).
The narrator wonders:
I'm somewhat curious as to what kind of a distorted story will result overall when you devote yourself to the details with no thought to the overall structure.
Vaseline Buddha more or less does that, and while distorted there's also some underlying control -- this isn't entirely haphazard -- and ultimately there is enough order to it that the whole does cohere. Jung's various anecdotes and small adventures -- from encounters with cows to various girlfriends -- are often entertaining in their details, and with its many distant locales, allowing the narrator to be even more at sea (even if, for example, he often prefers to spend his time in hotel rooms rather than sight-see), there's nice variety and color to the story, too.
Vaseline Buddha is a navel-gazing, writing-about-writing kind of book, of a fairly familiar sort, but the amiable tone and extensive reach make it a quite enjoyable example of the genre.
Quite good fun, with some very nice bits. - M.A.Orthofer
interview with Jung Young Moon
Jung Young Moon, A Contrived World, Trans. by Jeffrey Karvonen and Eunji Mah, Dalkey Archive Press, 2016.
Set in San Francisco, A Most Contrived World recounts the author’s visit to the mythic Californian city. While the novel is based in this real experience, the narrator’s imaginative reflections cause the narrative to balloon outward into the realms of fiction and fantasy. Each chance encounter provides an opportunity to unfurl a fictional world that simultaneously complements and compromises the real world. In this mirthful anti-novel, the ambiguous fusion of observation and invention disrupts the conventions of personal memoir and travel writing, resulting in a chronicle that sets fiction against experience.
A Contrived World is a record of the author Jung Young Moon’s stay in San Francisco. It’s a peculiar kind of record, for as the author has revealed: “It’s a story of not seeing things as they look, not hearing things as they sound, not feeling things as they feel and not accepting experiences for what they are.” The content of the novel consists largely of a stream of thoughts the author has about passing scenes and characters. It’s diff icult to regard the setting, San Francisco, as offering the necessary driving force for his writing. The author claims he intended to call the novel My Thoughts on Fun, and as he has pithily stated, it was written with “an unceasing desire for play.” What kind of desire is it that Jung was pursuing?
A novel is a fictitious world created through words. If the fictional world of the novel always resembles reality, writing a novel is itself the work of making “some artificial world.” However, if reality itself is already only a great fabrication, then what is a novel? If we follow the author’s counsel and read the work as a story of “not accepting experiences for what they are,”it is clear that A Contrived World, a lump of ideas lacking visible order or structure, is not noteworthy for creating a fictitious world apart from reality, but for recognizing that reality itself is artificial. We can read the novel as the author’s desire to expose the artificial character of reality within a space created by indifferent language. “By writing a novel, I was taking revenge on novels,” he writes, but it seems the object of his revenge was not only mimetic novels. To be precise, he was taking aim at the artificiality of reality, which other novels so scrupulously try to render. In Jung’s work, the unconscious world of the novel dreams of taking revenge on our artificial world. - Cho Yeon-jung Does Korean literature have a slacker-novel genre? If so, here’s its archetype.
The protagonist of novelist/translator Jung’s (Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories, 2013, etc.) slender yarn is a man of thought. Much thought. Too much thought. When he travels from Korea to find his girlfriend living with a Mexican man in Los Angeles, he finds himself pondering the interloper’s tattoo, then his rightness for a part in “a dull western movie in which a great many people are shot to death,” then his “very large black penis.” Never mind the discordant ethnicity, for our narrator is now off to thinking about lying in bed with his erstwhile girlfriend, “holding her nipple in my mouth without sucking on it or thinking about sucking on it.” Evidently exhausted by his mental efforts, he takes his time doing much of anything: a week drinking tequila here, a few days of gazing down at a vacant lot from the top of a scrubby hill there. Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is already looking like Jackie Chan compared to this fellow by the time an odd habit of his begins to become painfully evident, namely a bizarre hyperattention to every scrap of data that passes by his eye or through his thoughts, so that Jung (for this is a conscious choice on the writer’s part, after all) spends hundreds of words having him wonder whether the catfish he’s ordered in Chinatown—at least he’s managed to move a few hundred miles north to San Francisco—was raised in Vietnam or the “Mississippi River Valley,” wherever that might be. By the time he gets to pondering the local fauna, the reader may be inclined to move a few hundred miles away, too: “Somewhere else in this world there might be a park with more moles, but I could not imagine a park with more moles than Golden Gate Park, which made the park seem to belong to the moles.”
A contrived world? A contrived book, though, if such a thing is wanted, an inducement to torpor and despair. - Kirkus Reviews
A Contrived World could easily pass for a travelogue, author Jung Young-moon describing visits to the US and his odd and unusual and other encounters and experiences there. Markers such as mentions of a stay at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, his having translated Raymond Carver, and his novel, Vaseline Buddha leave no doubt he writes from experience. Yet in the stylized drift of his language, and the odd points he latches onto, A Contrived World is far from a straightforward Korean-abroad-account, and its explorations of form and expression make for a creative work of fiction -- and decidedly also a contrived on.
Though he translated a work by Raymond Carver he no longer thinks highly of the author: Carver is a good example of authors whom I used to think well of but I now believe have joined the ranks of mediocrity.
Instead, the American author most strongly influencing Jung, and this work, is clearly Richard Brautigan, whom he also writes about at several points. Jung emulates Brautigan's off-beatness in A Contrived World, in both the episodes he relates as well as in his presentation.
A Contrived World focuses on two of the narrator's stays in the US. The first had him "travelling with a woman I had dated for some time a while back and her boyfriend", and involved lots of drinking, as well as glimpses of LA, Hollywood, and Monterey. They parted ways in San Francisco, where the fog appealed to him (and didn't to the other two) -- though disappointingly: "The next day, the fog had lifted completely. Gone with the fog was my reason for remaining in San Francisco".
This account of his first visit takes up about a third of the novel; the rest centers on his return to San Francisco five years later, when he was invited to be a writer in residence at the University of California, Berkeley -- though choosing not to be entirely in residence there, but rather getting a place in San Francisco itself. He doesn't get in touch with the former girlfriend again -- "because I thought that we would only spend time drinking tequila and shooting guns if we met again" -- but there's still a lot more of the same.
The narrator claims: "I originally intended to title this novel My Idea of Fun", but seeing that Will Self had written a ("not-so-interesting) novel with that exact name" he abandons the title, if not, entirely, the concept. The laid-back narrator is likely not everyone's idea of fun (and certainly not the life of any party), and it's not too surprising that his own ideas of fun are hardly of the rollicking -- much less hilarious -- sort; indeed, it almost doesn't come as a surprise when he admits:
Twenty or so years ago, when I started writing novels, I had fallen into a bad mood and had been perpetually in a bad mood ever since, as if writing itself gave me a negative vibe.
He has some odd hobbies -- rolling pebbles down hills, for example -- and engages in odd thought/practical experiments, such as counting "things that are unsuitable for counting, clouds and wind being prime examples", something that he finds: "at the same time perplexing and enjoyable". Beyond that, typically:
I thought about reflecting on my repeatedly becoming preoccupied with trifling thoughts, but I changed my my mind and continued with my thoughts.
So also he is fascinated by the San Francisco fog -- and inspired (and uninspired, in his own way) by it, finding: "The fog made me think that I might write something, whether about the fog or unrelated to fog". And, indeed, the entire novel drifts in and out of this these fogs and observations and, especially, ambitions (as he generally manages little long-term follow-through, setting out to do one thing, but just as readily letting himself be side-tracked, or simply abandoning it). It's surprisingly effective -- if one is willing to go with the seemingly haphazard flow.
His summing-up of the idea behind the title covers most of the book, too:
I imagined a world that could be reached only through the act of contriving -- a vague, awkward, confusing, unnatural, dark, hopeless yet inescapable world that was becoming ever deeper. Contriving seemed to be the only way to complete the life laid in front of me. In my contrived world, where the lines between meaningfulness and meaninglessness, existence and nonexistence, and chance and necessity are blurred, everything is out of context, and I have no attachment to anything that happens or does not happen. It is a fictional world of strange idleness.
He's a bit torn about the outcome of his efforts here -- near the end he writes: "This entire novel, which I wrote as if it were about my idea of fun, is a lengthy expression of my indescribable, intense boredom" -- but the self-examination, and the observation -- and above all else, the expression -- do make for a surprisingly rich novel. It is also, in a way, a very funny novel, though the humor is exceptionally dry.
This is very much a Brautiganesque work, complete with Brautiganesque episodes. It's fairly easy to see how readers might find A Contrived World annoying. However, those more open to this kind of off-beat contriving, and apparent aimlessness with a strong obsessive bent, should find it most enjoyable. - M.A.Orthofer
Jung Young Moon, Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories,
Trans. by Jung Young-moon, Yewon Jung, Inrae You Vinciguerra, and Louis Vinciguerra. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.
read it at Google Books
Considered an eccentric in the traditional Korean literary world, Jung Young-moon’s short stories have nonetheless won numerous readers both in Korea and abroad, most often drawing comparisons to Kafka. Adopting strange, warped, unstable characters and drawing heavily on the literature of the absurd, Jung’s stories nonetheless do not wallow in darkness, despair, or negativity. Instead, we find a world in which the bizarre and terrifying are often put to comic use, even in direst of situations, and point toward a sort of redemption to be found precisely in the “weirdest” and most unsettling parts of life...
A Most Ambiguous Sunday is a collection of fourteen lengthy stories by Korean writer Jung Young Moon, running in total to just under 300 pages. The back cover claims that the writer is “considered an eccentric in the traditional Korean literary world”, and having read this collection, I can only agree. Readers who enjoy simple stories with important things like plots and characters should probably move along – nothing for you to see here , I’m afraid.
Those who are a little more prepared to trust the writer, though, ready to take a leap of faith in the hope that all will gradually come clear, will find a lot to enjoy in Jung’s idiosyncratic tales. The beauty of the stories is less in what they say and more in how they’re constructed and in the mood the writer conjures up. At times, he overreaches himself, and you might find yourself glazing over and wondering where the last five minutes went, but on the whole, the stories have a hypnotic pull, drawing the reader effortlessly through to the final page.
Many of the stories are notable for the feeling of calm they extend, even when the protagonists should be anything but. In ‘Mrs. Brown’, one of the better-known stories, a brutal home invasion turns into a polite afternoon tea party as the hostess absent-mindedly ponders the state of her marriage, almost ignoring the gun being waved around. ‘Drifting’ sees a vagrant, a man who has spent time in mental institutions, wander the freezing streets before being taken to the police station. Yet despite the aggressive nature of the detectives who interrogate him, the whole affair passes as if in a dream, leaving the characters (and the reader) untouched.
Other stories don’t even pretend to have much of a plot, allowing the characters to act as they please as their words swirl aimlessly around. A good example is ‘The Joy of Traveling’, in which two friends drive around, half-expecting a third friend who is unlikely to appear:
They knew where their conversation was going. It was sure to keep getting sidetracked, with no point to it whatsoever. That was the reason, too, why it was satisfying to talk to her. Their conversations never had a point, and so they never reached any point.
‘The Joy of Travelling’, p.35 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
This lack of action reaches its peak in the story ‘Together with a Chicken’, a piece which simply consists of idle ramblings of the most exquisite variety:
I said that to the invisible chicken next to me, which agreed.
‘Together with a Chicken’, p.108
Now if ever there was a line I wish I had written, that’s pretty much it.
One of the themes that does occasionally appear is the melancholy of existence, and several of the stories show people wandering around in settings enhancing a mood of loss. ‘At the Amusement Park’ has a man slipping into an abandoned complex, sitting in old attractions and remembering his younger days, while the protagonist of ‘Losing the Olfactory Sense’ wanders the streets of a town doomed to be flooded by a newly constructed dam, a place of silence and dust.
This theme also pervades an interesting trilogy of stories in the middle of the collection, ‘Animal Songs of Boredom and Fury’, in which a man who has turned his back on civilisation spends his time by the river, in a cave by the sea and at the top of an abandoned lighthouse. Again, there is no real direction to the stories – in fact, we’re not even completely sure that the nameless central character is the same one in each part. These are stories without location, timeless, a literary laboratory outside the normal world to experiment with… something.
You might wonder, seeing as many of the stories appear to lack any content, what actually makes them worth reading, and the answer is, of course, the writing. Jung enjoys playing with words, repeating them almost to the point of stripping them of their meaning, characters talking for the sake of talking, enjoying the idea and sound of conversation rather than the content:
…and what we enjoyed was the feeling of certain words in the rambling conversation being repeated and reiterated so that a certain rhythm was felt, and the feeling of listlessness created by that feeling.
In this way, our conversations were ones that not so much broke free from reality as deviated from reality, and our reality lay in a place that deviated from reality, but that reality was more real to us than any other reality, and we knew that what made reality insignificant was none other than insignificant realism.
‘A Way of Remembrance’, p.87
Don’t be too hard on the speaker here – he is talking about (and to) a corpse.
In a book like this, then, the translation is crucial, and on the whole this was a good effort. As you may have noticed, I didn’t credit the translator above, and that was deliberate, because there were actually too many of them to name at that point. Two of the stories were joint efforts between the writer and two well-known names in K-Lit (Sora Kim-Russell for one, Krys Lee for the other) while the majority of the stories were divided between Jung Yewon and the team of Louis Vinciguerra and Inrae You Vinciguerra. One interesting thing I found (and I’m not sure others would agree with me), is that the stories translated by the Vinciguerras appeared slightly less abstract and more plot-centred whereas Jung’s efforts were often more about the effect of the words. This may just be due to the choice of stories, but I certainly felt a slight difference in style in the last five stories. If anyone would like to weigh in on that, I’d be most grateful.
A Most Ambiguous Sunday has been described as a typical Dalkey Archive book, and I’m not going to dispute that. Jung Young Moon, on the basis of this collection, will not be to everyone’s liking, but if you enjoy hypnotic, repetitive sentences musing on the emptiness of life (Beckett is a reference point I’ve seen mentioned several times), this might be a book for you. I won’t pretend that I understand everything the writer wanted to say, but I did enjoy it immensely. It’s a book to take your time over, one to read on a lazy, sunny day. - tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/a-most-ambiguous-sunday-by-jung-young-moon-review/
"Together with a Chicken" by Jung Young Moon
The year 2012 could be called “the year of Jung Young Moon.” Jung received three major literary awards, one after another, for A Contrived World, published in 2011. A warm reception not enjoyed by the author throughout the publication of a dozen books since 1997 suddenly and belatedly washed over him. Of his works, the short story collections A Chain of Dark Tales and Pierrot on the Moon have been translated, the former into English and French and the latter into German, and A Most Ambiguous Sunday and An Afternoon of the Faun, also short story collections, are currently undergoing translation, as well as the novel, Vaseline Buddha.
Jung writes novels in which the narrators do everything in their imagination. The author, who rarely ever permits clichés, talks about “nothingness” as he describes ugliness instead of beauty, distinguishes between wretchedness and misery, ridicules rather than mocks, transforms ideas into lyricism, and goes from daydreams to delusions. To the author, an impressionist of languor, or an avant-garde lyricist, humor is language, ethics, and light.
Relationships: Insomnia and Writing, Narrator and Author
Han Eun-hyeong: Congratulations on receiving three literary awards last year for A Contrived World.*
Jung Young Moon: I’m all the more pleased, because all three awards are among the most prestigious in Korea, and are given without commercial considerations.
Han: You’ve been known to suffer from severe insomnia. When did it start? There are many references to insomnia in your works—does it have an effect on your works?
Jung: It started when I began writing these wretched things called novels. It began to get severe about 10 years ago, I think. A normal brain automatically switches over to sleeping mode when it’s time, but my brain always malfunctions. A lot of thoughts come to me as I lie awake in bed, tossing and turning. Sleepless hours, for me, are also hours in which I can concentrate on writing. Recently, I had this thought—naming each night’s sleep wouldn’t help me fall asleep, but it could be better than counting sheep, I should name tonight’s sleep, the confusion of a racehorse that abandons the fallen jockey and runs away without even looking back. Then I made the following note. “But as the horse runs far, far away, my sleep, too, runs far, far away, when the jockey is passed out and sleeping. Will the jockey leap to his feet and go after the horse if I wake him? It seems that I’ll be able to fall sleep only if the jockey runs and catches the horse. It’s a good night to go for a walk on a quiet street on which standing statues are looking down, in some place like Torino, Italy, where standing statues stand here and there on the streets, on a street with equestrian statues, where fallen jockeys have disappeared without a trace.” In the end, I stayed up all night that night, thinking such thoughts, but at least I could think that I had thoughts that were good for staying up all night with.
Han: You’re an author who’s suspected to be almost identical to the narrators of his novels. In what way does Jung Young Moon, the author, differ the most from his narrators? How close, and how far, is he from the narrators?
Jung: Suspected, you say? You could say that all the novels I’ve written so far are my own stories. I have a hard time distancing myself from the narrators of my novels. There is both good and bad to it, I think. The good being that there are no feelings of disparity and awkwardness that come when you tell a story through a narrator whose personality is completely different from yours, since you can assimilate yourself completely to the character and immerse yourself in him. And you don’t have to take the trouble of gaining new understanding or knowledge about an unfamiliar narrator. The bad would be that I expose myself too completely through the narrator. So there are times when I feel as if I’m being stripped. Personally, though, I think that’s a good thing as well.
Han: You say that the narrators of the novels are Jung Young Moon himself, but the alter egos seem quite varied.
Jung: Even the things I actually experienced go through a lot of transformations and distortions in the different contexts of the novels. The characters in the novels I’ve written so far show different sides in different situations, but maybe they could be merged into a single character. They exist in a world called reality, but are abstract, conceptualized figures. You could say that they are people whose basis of thought is made up of their feelings about and awareness of a sense of boredom and emptiness regarding life. The characters in my works, with a consciousness of language on a fundamental level, talk endlessly of emptiness, suffer from the boredom of life, and a sense of helplessness regarding life.
Boredom, Humor, and Irony
Han: An Afternoon of the Faun is a beautiful collection of short stories. “Mrs. Brown,” a story in this collection, is somewhat different from your other works. It has a central story and a plot. Did you write it with a certain resolve?
Jung: An Afternoon of the Faun is the collection I personally have the most affection for. It’s been translated into English and is scheduled to be published this fall by Dalkey Archive Press, a prestigious U.S. publisher. “Mrs. Brown,” a story with a relatively clear plot, is unusual among my works, which rarely have a plot. It’s a sort of absurd drama, in which a robber breaks into a house in the suburbs of a small town in the U.S. and does ludicrous things, such as making a request to play the piano while he sings, without even asking for money. I wrote it after watching the news about a robbery that actually took place while I was at the University of Iowa in the U.S. for the 2005 International Writing Program. I’d never written a story with a clear motif, and such stories never had an appeal for me, and even while writing this story I thought it didn’t really suit me, so I felt ill at ease writing it. It’s a somewhat abrupt piece of work, different from the other, ambiguous pieces in An Afternoon of the Faun.
Han: The sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” which appears repeatedly in Vaseline Buddha, is a sentence composed by Chomsky, a sentence that’s semantically incorrect but beautiful. Do you consider it your literary motto?
Jung: When I was writing the novel, I tried to give it a general overtone like that of the sentence. I wanted to write a novel that was indefinable, one that could be read in a variety of ways.
Han: Humor is based on intellect, isn’t it? Vaseline Buddha is an interesting, unique work in itself, but I felt that you were training your intellect for the humor that was to come into full bloom in A Contrived World. How do you feel about that?
Jung: Humor is something that lies at the core of my works. And what I see as humor always involves the irony of the futility of existence. You could say that the two novels are a work in two parts, that something that revealed itself in Vaseline Buddha took on a more concrete shape in A Contrived World. No, now that I’ve said it, it doesn’t seem that way. I think the two are separate pieces of work.
Han: I laughed countless times while reading A Contrived World. I don’t want to use a word like this, but I felt healed, in a way. How much did you laugh while writing it?
Jung: I laughed by myself now and then. But I didn’t experience any healing myself. Even while writing it, I suffered from extreme boredom and feelings of emptiness. I think the humor came about naturally in the process of putting up with those feelings.
Han: I got the impression that you were obsessed with describing the appearance of ugly women. The narrator is strangely moved while describing ugliness. Why is that? Is it because it’s naive and simple to describe beautiful women?
Jung: About good-looking men or beautiful women, there’s nothing more to say than that they’re beautiful, but there’s great individuality to an ugly face, with much to describe, and the descriptions can be fun, I think. There’s something moving about an ugly woman, to be sure.
The Imagination and Reality of a Stateless Writer
Han: Is there anything you’d like to say to readers abroad?
Jung: From the beginning, I started writing novels that were far from what they call “Korean,” and almost none of my works reveal clues that lead you to assume that the setting is in Korea. My works deal with universal human existence and emotions, so no matter what your nationality, you’ll feel almost no sense of disparity that comes from reading foreign novels. I think trained readers in search of novels that are serious and humorous at the same time will enjoy my works.
Han: Do you see yourself as a Korean writer?
Jung: I see myself as a stateless writer who just happens to write in Korean.
Han: What would you say is the most distinguishing characteristic of your novels?
Jung: I’d say it’s that they have no narrative, and are mostly made up of disconnected, fragmentary anecdotes and ideas. Nothing really happens, and the narrator’s consciousness makes for a large part of the works. You could say that I’m continuing the tradition of Kafka and Beckett, great modernists of the 20th century.
Han: How do you come up with ideas?
Jung: Sometimes I base a work on the smallest bit of an idea, and sometimes, I come up with as many ideas as possible, and then remove the traces of thinking as much as possible in the final stage, making the work look as if it were written without any thought at all.
Han: You seem to be a writer who’s particularly sensitive to the nuance of words. What whimsical, fun thoughts have you had lately?
Jung: I was at a friend’s house recently, sitting on her sofa with her Maltese puppy in my lap, folding and unfolding its ears over and over again, thinking that in English, the folded corner of a page is called a “dog ear.” As I sat there doing that without talking, I sensed that she wanted me to stop, but I didn’t. The dog looked up at me as if it didn’t know what was going on, and as I sat there quietly looking down at the dog, I felt as if I’d come to her house to fold and unfold the dog’s ears over and over again. In the end, my friend told me to stop folding and unfolding her Maltese’s ears and go home, and I ended up going home, leaving one of the dog’s ears folded, and even after I got home, I went on thinking that the dog’s ear would remain folded until the next morning, at least. The next morning, I didn’t call her to see if the dog’s ear was still folded, but I did think that a Maltese was a dog whose ears were good for folding. I’ve folded back the ears of many dogs, and a Maltese’s ears actually stayed folded the best.
Han: Lastly, if you could tell me about any repetitive thought you’ve had lately, groping in the dark or in a haze, what would it be?
Jung: It’s a slight twist on the title of Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice—I started writing a story about someone who goes to Venice and meets his end after writing a novel about someone who meets his end after writing a novel called An End in Gangwondo (a province in Korea), or someone who goes to Gangwon Province and meets his end after writing a novel about someone who meets his end after writing a novel called An End in Venice, or someone who thinks about writing such a novel but meets his end without ever writing it, but it’s unclear even as to whether he goes to Gangwon Province or Venice, or if everything is real or merely imagined, and the narrator falls endlessly into hazy thoughts, even as he writes. That’s the general idea, but I don’t know how it’s going to unfold or end. - Han Eun-hyeong
Jung Young Moon Talks About Contrived Worlds and Just Not Caring