I’m not the only one to have had doubts about the effectiveness of the cover designs of Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, but sharp-eyed readers may have spotted that one of the twenty-six titles released so far appears to have had special treatment (to the extent that I’m still not 100% sure that it actually *is* in the series). This applies to the writer too, the only one to have had two books published in the collection, and a man whose work I’ve already covered several times on my blog. An exception, then, in every sense of the word, and when you’ve actually read his work, you might agree with the book’s outsider status…
Jung Young Moon’s A Contrived World (translated by Jeffrey Karvonen & Mah Eunji, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) is another of the writer’s semi-autobiographical books about nothing in particular, revolving around two trips he made to the west coast of the USA. During the first, he spends time with his ex-girlfriend and her new Mexican boyfriend, chilling out in the desert (if that’s possible…). The second, years later, then sees him on an extended visit to San Francisco, waiting for inspiration for a novel to strike in the midst of his random rambles.
The novel is divided into chapters in which Jung uses the world around him as material for his writing. In parts, it’s fairly descriptive, a picture of San Fran and the surrounding region, with Jung acting as a tour guide for his readers. However, these passages are often simply springboards for the writer’s imagination, with Jung taking the reader off on tangents, which (as usual) leave us wondering whether there’s actually a book here at all.
For anyone who’s already experienced Jung’s idiosyncratic style, A Contrived World will be very familiar. The writer thrives on choosing a topic and then using it as a launching pad to follow the idea in his head wherever it may take him (one of the more interesting examples of this would certainly be when he happens to see his ex’s boyfriend naked and then muses for several pages on the peculiarities of the penis). Still, he’s definitely aware of his failings:
She was clearly not having the kind of conversations we used to have with her Mexican boyfriend. It occurred to me again that she’d changed considerably, and that I hadn’t changed much at all. After all those years, I still thought mainly about nonsense, and I usually talked nonsense when I met people.
p.14 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016)
Believe me – he’s not just being modest here…
Jung’s previous work in English, Vaseline Buddha, did mention the outside world, but for the most part was a rather abstract work. By contrast, the setting is an important part of A Contrived World, with the writer’s musings inspired by the places he visits, from the desert to forests and the city. Surprisingly, there are times when he plays with a surprisingly straight bat, and some of the descriptions could come straight from travel books – there’s something very Brysonesque about the way he introduces the Californian coastline.
Still, it’s never long before the vagueness he does so well takes centre stage, and San Francisco is the perfect setting for it:
We continued heading north and arrived in San Francisco in the middle of the night. Thick fog shrouded the city. We were unable to read the road signs, and there were no pedestrians to ask for directions. We drove around downtown for a while as though we were drifting in limbo. It felt like a hallucination from which I would never escape. (p.47)
As in Vaseline Buddha, Jung experiences frequent bouts of dizziness and ennui, often unable to rouse himself from his sombre moods, and the fog he encounters here is akin to a physical manifestation of these moods. This darker side to his writing is ever-present, and the description of his temporary home as one of the world’s suicide capitals is no coincidence.
It’s never easy trying to pull themes together in Jung’s work (like threading fog…), but there’s a definite sense of movement and drifting running throughout the book. The writer has an obsession with hoboes, vagrants and drifters (and has detailed theories on the differences between them), detailing his encounters with the homeless people in the park and delighting in telling their stories along with his own. These are people who need to keep moving, with no real attachment to their home, and the reader senses that the writer feels an affinity with them.
Perhaps more than his experiences, though, it’s the stories Jung tells, repeated and bizarre, that lend such a unique air to the book. We learn of a monkey that made it to the North Pole, the sardine-throwing teddy bear gang that accosted the poor defenceless writer, and a trip he made to throw fruit off the Golden Gate Bridge. And yet, we can never take him at his word, as he often turns around and contradicts himself (the fruit story never happened because the bridge is closed to pedestrians at night – and because he was too tired to go out anyway…). Sometimes, as in the case of a story about a hippie living off roadkill, he admits that the story’s fabricated from the start:
The following is the story I made up. (I am digressing again, but this is because I am fine with this novel heading in any direction, and because this novel has no message to convey. What I want in a novel is for new stories to emerge and break away from the original story, and eventually for all of the stories to become jumbled and confused.) (p.120)
So, what we have is an intriguing mix of minutiae and lies – making him an untrustworthy Korean Knausgaard of sorts 😉
While some readers may tire of his constant twists and turns, A Contrived World can be a delight to read. The translation reads nicely, and once you settle into the novel, the usual contradictions and jokes are entertaining. I do wonder, though, whether the translation is a little too smooth. Jung’s other works in English have seemed less watered down, and in this one, the sentences appear to be shorter, with more standard vocabulary choices. Interestingly enough, Jung Yewon (who translated Vaseline Buddha and some of the stories in the collection A Most Ambiguous Sunday) produced a sample translation from A Contrived World back in 2013, and there are clear differences between the two versions. I’m not going to judge whether her version of the text is better or worse than that of Karvonen and Mah, but it’s certainly different.
He’s not a writer for everyone, but I enjoyed my latest encounter with Jung, like a pleasant walk through the fog:
Like rain, fog, which is water in a different state, seems to have certain abstract properties. This is perhaps because water in all of its various forms, and all liquids, have inherent elements that are perfectly abstract. It seems to me that while one might easily grow tired of looking at concrete forms, abstract things possess something in them that prevents people from losing interest. (p.64)
And that’s the heart of his appeal, an abstract nature that keeps your interest even when you’re not entirely sure where he’s going or what he’s talking about – or whether it’s natural or contrived…