Something That Was Almost Nothing About Something That Was Almost Something
J.S. DeYoung reviews Jung Young Moon’s Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River (trans. Yewon Jung)
“What I wanted to say was things that kept going off on tangent forever, if only that were possible”, Jung Young Moon writes in his new novel, Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River (trans. Yewon Jung), fresh out from Deep Vellum. Dispassionate, subversive, ambiguous, utterly cuckoo at times, Jung Young Moon has written a short masterwork of contemporary digression, a far distant cousin to Tristram Shandy (1759); but also a novel that acts as an antidote to our age of distraction because it takes real presence to follow the narrator’s mind, a mind that is looking to challenge the notions of fiction — to create fiction that one might hesitate to call fiction. Instead of a traditional plot, Jung reckons with the artifice of technique, leaving it to the reader to assume that the only fictions in these pages are the inquisitive and logically approached daydreams the narrator unfurls and widens, the musings and reveries that sweep the reader along.
Jung Young Moon was born in Hamyang, South Korea, in 1965. He graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in psychology, but has made his living mostly by translating English-language works into Korean. He made his literary début in 1996 with A Man Who Barely Exists, and has since published several novels and story collections. In 2016, two of his novels were published in English translations: A Contrived World (Dalkey Archive) and Vaseline Buddha (Deep Vellum). My first encounter with his writing, however, was in a collection of short fiction entitled A Most Ambiguous Sunday (Dalkey Archive, 2004). I remember the first story in the collection being of pretty standard fare, although with hints of Jung’s offbeat sensibilities. The subsequent stories, however, held me mesmerised. In topographically flat and matter-of-fact prose, the narrative thought was uncommonly strict. It was writing that should have been boring, not only because of its style but also because Jung was writing about boredom, and about doing nothing in a boring way. Scenes were sometimes little more than a pile-up of drama-free sentences. But somehow it wasn’t boring at all. It was compelling and moving. Obviously, though, this sort of writing isn’t for everyone.
Of his work, Jung Young Moon has been forthcoming about its potential lack of appeal, stating in interviews that he is “never going to be the kind of writer people are rushing out to read…” (To the contrary, I’m looking forward to his trilogy of novellas due out next year from Deep Vellum.) Still, he readily admits that his writing has no message, and that he’s extremely skeptical of a greater purpose to writing in general. “There is no meaning to this world”, he says, “so my work is more about trying to reveal that than to construct some new meaning.” Indeed, his novel Vaseline Buddha wanders associatively from topic to topic in an effort to create a novel form, but at the same time not to create a novel at all. One of its guiding motifs is Noam Chomsky’s sentence — “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” —which has the form and grammar of a complete sentence yet has no intelligible meaning. Such, too, is Vaseline Buddha.
So, given Jung Young Moon’s proclivities toward eccentric modes of thought — prizing contemplative randomness over clear progression — what is Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River about? Nothing. Reality. The emptiness of existence. It’s a 164-page mediation. It’s a koan. It’s a daydream. It’s a game. It’s a handful of curated thoughts transcribed onto a printed page. It’s a deliberate failure: Jung’s own word for it. And it’s also a novel about Texas, as it purports to be the novel he wrote while at 100 West Corsicana Artists’ & Writers’ Residency in Corsicana, Texas. Its opening sentence sums up its existential conundrum:
It’s winter now, and I’m in Texas, and I’m writing this, a story about Texas, but at the same time, a story that deviates from being a story about Texas, a story that does, indeed, go back to being a story about Texas, something that I’m writing in the name of a novel but something that is perhaps unnamable.
Among the unhurried deviations from his topic of Texas, Jung explores prehistoric remains, the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angles, cultivating weeds, job offers, yogis, the first cat in space, cat statues, Hemingway’s suicide, and a recurring mental pantomime of Akira Kurosawa’s seven samurai being swept away in a river. These samurai, he remarks, seem to be telling him to write something “akin to them fighting each other for no reason or motive, or like them getting swept away in a river, something that was almost nothing about something that was almost something”, a comically convoluted concept echoed throughout the novel.
In juxtaposition to these deviations, the narrator spends many pages dwelling on the rambling absurdities of his declared topic: Texas and events that have taken place there. In the novel’s opening sections, he ruminates on the division Texans feel about chilli — can it be chilli at all if beans are added? He is fascinated by the nonsensical combination of a lone bison and a defunct space capsule in a local pasture. There is a lengthy survey of the peculiarities of Jack Ruby, the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President Kennedy. Ruby was a known dog lover, owning eleven dogs at the time of the murder, taking along two of them when he went to kill Oswald. There is a charming retelling of the lives of the infamous bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, and of how they first met over cups of steaming hot chocolate. And in the closing chapters, Jung dos-à-dos around what makes a “true Texan”, and visits a cowboy church, where the pastor pronounces blessing “on ditches and on fences, which are important to cowboys”. It’s a pretty funny novel, in places.
While a few of the madcap tangents and aimless meditations Jung writes about can seem to have all the perceptiveness of a North Texas barfly’s stream-of-consciousness prattle, there are a number of guiding passages that keep him and the reader from wandering so far afield as to be incomprehensible. Here are two important passages:
The only thing that concerned me was finding out how long and until when I could go on saying things… that were pure nonsense and that kept going off on a tangent and that had nothing to say and that, furthermore, made no difference whether they said nothing or not and in the end were irrelevant, and you could say that I’m writing this in order to find that out (and it’s also to find out how much longer I can go on using repetitions of words and phrases which naturally bring pleasure to people who understand the pleasure they bring, and don’t to people who don’t understand them)…
I thought that the only plot in my life, if it could indeed be called a plot, were the plots of day and night, of the weather of the day, and of the four seasons and the climate, and that plots, which were considered absolutely necessary in fiction, might as well not exist, and that the less they existed the better, but that the following plots still might as well exist: [including] a plot in which seven samurai fight with each other for no reason or motive or get swept away in a river…
After this confession of a mundane existence — yet one that includes a vibrant and remarkable interior life — the narrator creates a three-page list of viable plots for possible use, including a “plot that is hostile to other plots”. While Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River doesn’t seem to have a “hostile” sentence anywhere in it, this might be a good description of its point of origin.
Much like the device Jung uses in Vaseline Buddha, there is a single image that encapsulates the gist of Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River and it’s one of the loveliest in the book. The image is of a frozen waterfall. The narrator and a companion hike a trail to see a prehistoric site, but they don’t find it. Instead they come across this strange sight:
The waterfall — whose column of water was frozen as it was — seemed to be telling us to just look at it, not climb it, without looking at it for too long, but if we really wanted to look at it for a long time we could and yet it wasn’t ever going to reveal another aspect of itself simply because we’d looked at it for a long time, but if we looked at it for a really long time then it might end up revealing an aspect of itself which to itself was unknown, perhaps a rather negative aspect…
As the narrator and his companion are present with the negative aspects of this waterfall, so the narrator is alert to the negative aspect of his novel. “I’m writing now… something akin to finding a frozen waterfall instead of a prehistoric site”, he writes. Metaphorically speaking, the prehistoric site is the traditional novel form; the frozen waterfall — the expectation never to be satisfied — is Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River, a text always held in suspense by its next digression.
Tangents can be remarkable devices in literature. Written masterfully by an author, these detours can open up dimensions within dimensions. They can create interest through juxtaposition. They can excite a story — or, in this case, carry a novel. And, if you’ll allow me, I’m going to make a digression of my own here. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a retrospective for performance artist Marina Abramović called The Artist is Present. In addition to clips and pieces from her expansive and provocative career, Abramović was herself present, as a piece of art. Seated on a wooden chair across from another wooden chair, with her dark hair braided and resting on one shoulder, Abramović sat for 750 hours (seventy-nine days) without aid, without distraction, without a way to the bathroom. She was sixty-three years old. Patrons and guests of MoMA could come and sit across from Abramović and look at her, be present with her, and have Abramović be present for them. About The Artist is Present, Abramović said: “The proposition here is just to empty the self. To be able to present.”
In actuality, The Artist is Present and Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River really don’t have that much to do with one another. I just happened to read about Abramović’s project at the same time as I was reading and preparing for this review; they share a common space only in my mind — and now perhaps in yours. Although they don’t have much of an inherent or explicit connection, the two projects somehow speak to one another. For those willing to spend time with Jung Young Moon’s work, to be still with it because the writing invites you be still, there is reward, just as those willing to sit across from Abramović found the experience rewarding, moving, life-changing, if only in the most miniscule way. Both Jung and Abramović are welcoming your time, inviting you to slow down, in effect calling out to say: let us know something of one another before the whole world goes up.
John Fowles once wrote that the final analysis of any artist never depends on his or her “technique or craft, but the personality of the artist, the expression of his or her unique and individual feelings”. That is what Jung Young Moon’s novels are rich with. Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is built from relatively common novelistic techniques — repetition, character, juxtaposition, tangent — but it is Jung’s singular point-of-view that is most gratifying, most present, worth consideration. Although he denies its presence, meaning is there in his work — only to tell you that there is no meaning. His work reads like a joke, and you’ll laugh at his absurd observations, but then it also reads like the most serious explanation of the mysteries of life — and you might tremble in the face of the abyss he reveals. It’s perplexing, but also logical, an extended outgrowth of the sort of strange thoughts we all have from time to time — not vulgar thoughts, but thoughts that are sweet, light, deserving of a place, and that spiritedly resist the staid status quo that Jung punctures when his narrator declares, wistfully: “How stifling this present three-dimensional world is.”