The Novelist Who Gave Up on the World
Jung Young Moon Talks About Contrived Worlds and Just Not Caring
Korean novelist Jung Young Moon is a creator of “contrived worlds.” Of course, all literature—fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose—is in some form a contrivance, where worlds are fashioned through words. But Jung Young Moon’s Vaseline Buddha and A Contrived World—both of which were released in English translation earlier this year, from Deep Vellum and Dalkey Archive, respectively—wear their contrivance on their sleeves.
The narrator of Vaseline Buddha (translated by Yewon Jung) begins his text by metafictionally explaining, “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.” The story he thinks vaguely that he would write and, thus, continues to catalogue in the 200-plus pages that follow is a mix of free-associative thought, memory, and dream, where the narrator and the author seem alloyed, almost indiscernible. A Contrived World (translated by Jeffrey Karvonen and Mah Eunji) likewise exists in this hinterland, on the edges of memoir and fiction, fusing truth and lies, dream and reality, memory and fantasy, into a seductive stream of consciousness.
We wade into these two streams of consciousness and are swept away in a current of fluid thought, as sensation and ideation merge into a movement of molecules, a tide in perpetual flux. For, like the stream we use as a metaphor for consciousness, these texts are governed by two opposing forces: the chaos that continually confounds the cosmos entropically and the order that forever forms that chaos into patterns. In our email conversation, Jung Young Moon explains how his fascination with our fluid inner nature is the undercurrent beneath each of these streams.
Tyler Malone: You write in A Contrived World about a moment in a forest in Mendocino: “Even in that moment, I knew that I would do whatever it took to turn the experience into text, which made me suspect that I was steering the experience to make it suitable for turning into text.” Could you talk about the idea of “contrivance” and “contrived worlds” in relationship to this turning-into-text-ness?
Jung Young Moon: A Contrived World is a novel about novel-writing in that the narrator continuously ruminates on the novel that he is writing. It is a story about the narrator, who is an author writing about his fictional ideas, but in a way it can also be read as a story about an author living in a fiction. To say that an author is living in a fiction is to say that he is living a life that is not separate from his writing. In that situation, the author’s life experiences emerge as material for writing, and are meaningful only if they melt into the writing. I feel that I am living as much in my writing as I am living in reality. The reason that I cannot distinguish the two at times is perhaps because my existence has little substance in reality. In fact, I feel that I am more alive in the novels that I write.
TM: Both of these novels, Vaseline Buddha and A Contrived World, are often called semi-autobiographical. How do you see yourself in relation to the narrators of these two novels?
JYM: These two novels are totally subjective, written without even a modicum of effort or need to maintain a distance between the author and the narrator so as to ensure objectivity. The fact that the stories in these novels do not presuppose veracity makes them fictions rather than autobiographical novels. Many episodes in these novels are, in fact, derived from my actual experiences, but they serve mostly as tiny motifs that are transformed and processed quite heavily, as they would be in fictional novels.
TM: Both Vaseline Buddha and A Contrived World have very little actual plot. When I try to give a plot summary of these two books, I realize I am missing all the things I love about them. In A Contrived World, you write, “[I] cannot concern myself with the facts of life, but only with my thoughts on those facts.” For you, are plot happenings only interesting in terms of the digressions they can engender? Is plot merely a way to generate memory, thought, reflection, humor, tension, etc.?
JYM: My interest has always been inner human nature. I sought to explore that inner nature through novels, and more importantly, that the novels I have written are, in a way, stories about people who have given up on the world altogether, by a person who has become completely indifferent to the world and given up on the world, and that I might still be writing about giving up.
The thoughts, consciousness, and emotions that arise from the interior tend to branch out endlessly and charge ahead without direction. They are neither concluded nor resolved so as to offer turns, thus, what we call a plot, which is comprised of turns, is practically nonexistent. I sought to introduce that inner operating mechanism in my novels as faithfully as possible, and consequently, plots are either absent or very faint in my novels.
Moreover, my novels lack interaction and friction among characters, or the events borne of interaction and friction, which serve as the main force that moves a story along, because characters in my novels already live in self-sufficient worlds in which they do not require the formation of relationships or communication with others, and relationships and communication are replaced by the thoughts of narrators who are in conflict with themselves rather than with the world, or by thoughts that rupture constantly in the mind. However, those thoughts neither progress toward something, nor generate meaningful synergy to enter a higher level of thinking, but rather perpetuate repetitions and variations, constantly going off course and onto strange paths, losing their way, and if they finally find their way again, getting lost again on another path, or returning to their point of origin, arriving, after long contemplation, at the same spot where they were before any contemplation happened at all.
TM: You admit to digressing, to going on tangents. Your writing clearly seems constructed to mimic the meandering associative patterns of thought and memory. Are these texts truly aimless digressions (and, therefore, akin to “automatic writing”)? Or is there much more tinkering behind these seemingly aimless (but secretly more controlled) digressions?
JYM: You can say that these novels are composed of thoughts on facts, thoughts on those thoughts, and thoughts on thoughts thought by thoughts. Now, these thoughts originate from the narrators, but sometimes they seem to leave the narrators, drifting and giving rise to one another. When a thought occurs to me, I try to hold the reins loosely and allow it to move onto another thought as naturally as possible. However, one thought can lead to all thoughts, and leading to all thoughts is the same as leading to no thought at all. If I hold the reins too loosely, the thought often runs amok like a runaway horse and leads to thoughts that make no sense, so control in some form is necessary. When thoughts cannot find their own directions, I have no choice but to guide them in a certain direction, but even in those cases, I try to avoid controlling or leading them excessively, so as not to cower my thoughts.
TM: Is generating meaning at all important to you or your work?
JYM: My writing is a process not of generating meaning, but of erasing meaning endlessly, in which a statement does not add meaning to the previous statement, but erases, deconstructs, or cancels out the meaning that has been generated. This happens at the sentence level as well as on the scale of an entire story. There is an abundance of words, but the words do not say anything in the end. Of course, my ultimate interest lies in emptiness itself, which is composed of nothingness and meaninglessness. However, in discussing complete emptiness, all words are useless, and there are probably no appropriate words. Therefore, my words comment on approaching infinitely close to emptiness, but never reaching complete emptiness, on a state just before emptiness.
In novel writing, I think I am playing some meaningless, endless, and excessive game. In that I am strictly telling stories that are told only by their inner drive and demands, it is a perfect game. As I wrote in Vaseline Buddha, “Games using words are really the only games you can enjoy until you get tired of them, or enjoy forever without getting tired of them.” This game does not have an aim, but it is in itself its own purpose. It is a game for gaming’s sake, a self-satisfying game, and if meaning is generated unintentionally in the process, it is secondary. I attribute this game to my passion for nothingness and meaninglessness. I do not know when I might become incapable of playing this extremely useless game, but that does not seem to matter too much. To talk about how that might happen, I might quit playing after becoming fed up with the game, or I might start writing incomprehensibly, or as I described in A Contrived World, I might end up talking only about clouds, and that would also be fine.
TM: Speaking of the clouds in A Contrived World, one option you mention as a possible alternative title for that book in the text itself is Drifting Clouds. Do you consider all your writing to be like drifting clouds?
JYM: Not all of my writing, but I do think that of all of my writing after a certain period. Those works of writing have no point, “because drifting clouds, in my opinion, are the things in the natural world that best demonstrate that there is no point to anything.” Missing from the beginning of the English version of A Contrived World is the statement, “This novel can be subtitled A Writing Attempt as an Extremely Trivial, Useless, and Nonsensical Contemplation, or My Ideas of Fun, or Colorless Ideas Sleeping Furious Green Sleep, or Drifting Clouds.” Any of these suggested subtitles could have easily been the title.
TM: In both books, you talk within the text of these various alternative titles you might give to the books you are writing. How do you decide on the final title? And how important are titles to you?
JYM: Naturally, I think of several titles and choose the one that best encapsulates the novel. Sometimes, a good title might come into my mind in the conception phase of a novel, and advise the overall form and mood of the novel. But other times, I struggle to come up with an appropriate title even after completing a novel. Many of my novels are difficult to encapsulate in a few words, but this is not a huge problem, because giving a novel a title that encapsulates the whole is not crucial.
TM: In the title Vaseline Buddha, there is obviously the word “Vaseline,” which as you explain is “a compound word made up of the words water and oil.” It seems that you are fascinated by these liminal states, whether they appear in a microcosm within a word or in a macrocosm throughout the text. What is it about “the gray area that can’t be named” that attracts you?
JYM: I am drawn less to fixed, standardized, and final things than fluid, continuously gliding, self-contradictory, confusing, risky, noncommittal, transient, unclear, ambiguous, vague, hard-to-describe, thought-evading, unknowable, interminable things. You might say that all things that fit these descriptions are in the gray area.
TM: The words “form” and “chaos” come up frequently in the books and are often at odds, but also not entirely independent of one another. Creating stories has always seemed to me to be a dance between the two. The more one tries to recreate chaos, the more form emerges. The more one tries to give something form, the more chaos seeps out. How do you see your work in relation to form and chaos?
JYM: As I mentioned earlier, this world has no principle, and is chaotic from its creation. The chaos that I mention directly, and the aspects of chaos expressed in my novels, must result from that. Chaos does not have form, therefore form cannot express chaos itself. So in order to discuss chaos, one must turn it into an entity that can be taken to a level where chaos can be held, and a certain shape might be given to chaos in that process, and form makes that possible. However, chaos by its nature will not be confined by form, but will always try to break away. An author who wishes to write about chaos must find a point in the continuous clashing and competition between form and chaos that meshes with what he seeks to express. One might be able use form to exert significant control over chaos, but I seek to allow form to rupture if possible, and leave it in that ruptured state until chaos gives rise to another form.
TM: What writers do you see as major influences on your writing?
JYM: There are authors whose writing marks a transition in the history of literature, whose writing formed a new genre or trend in literature, and Kafka and Beckett are prime examples. I decided to become an author while reading Kafka, and consequently Kafka’s influence is strong in my early works. I think I moved away from his influence as I wrote those early works. Richard Brautigan almost seems to be an author one should not be influenced by, because there are few authors who consider themselves influenced by Richard Brautigan, or whose work demonstrates his influence. As if Brautigan did something wrong, everyone inexplicably pushed away, and few people seem to mention Brautigan anymore, but he continues to influence me in strange ways. In my opinion, he was a most brilliant author, and possessed a destructive power in a good sense. In fact, he demonstrated that his writing and his life were meaningless through his writing and life. Despite certain differences, Brautigan’s stories are like Zen practitioners exchanging riddles; they read like drifting clouds, yet seem to reach directly to the heart of the matter. I am fond of Brautigan’s outrageous qualities, and I tried to give new form to those qualities in A Contrived World. I think that we share much of our gloom, and a humor that can only arise from a certain gloom. I have also been inspired to write novels after reading J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and John Fowles’s short story collection The Ebony Tower, which I translated into Korean. In my opinion, these titles represent the best of their writing. Not all of their work is great, but I think that having written the titles I mentioned is enough to make them great authors.
TM: Lastly, I’m curious about your thoughts on translation. I’m interviewing you as someone who loved both Vaseline Buddha and A Contrived World, but while I would say I am a fan of your writing, I have never actually read a word you’ve written because I can’t read Korean. You’re a translator too, of course. But what do you feel as an author in a situation such as this?
JYM: I am not sure how I feel “as an author in a situation such as this.” In truth, I stopped having a position on almost everything. I think the only position I have is that I am not concerned what happens to anything related to myself. Certainly there is a disadvantage to writing in Korean, which is a minority language, and I have considered writing in English, but that does not seem to be an issue for me anymore.
A new collection of short stories will be published in Korea next January, and there is a good possibility that it will be translated and published in English by a company in Texas. If I go back to Texas then, I hope to see what I regretfully failed to see this year when I went to Texas, after the publication of my novel by the same publisher: the countless livestock, oil fields, and drifting clouds of Texas, which come to mind when I think of Texas. It would be nice if I could write a novel featuring the livestock and oil fields of Texas, but it would not matter if I could not write one.
Feature image: detail from the cover of A Contrived World.