There are novels that try to transport you, that in the words of Neil Gaiman act as “a dream that you hold in your hand.” If the dream succeeds, you forget the physical book you are holding and travel to Tralfamadore, Wuthering Heights, Wonderland, wherever; you live life through the eyes of the characters, become other than you are.
But there are other novels that wouldn’t dream of letting you dream, books that constantly foreground their textuality, that ponder publicly what it is the writer is doing and what it is the reader is doing and never let you forget that the writer and the reader are indeed always doing something in the process of textual exchange.
From its opening line, Jung Young Moon’s “Vaseline Buddha” aligns itself with that latter self-interrogating category: “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.” What follows is the story that the narrator vaguely thinks he might write. Never letting you forget that you are reading the story he is writing, he produces lines like “this story is also a story about the process of writing a story.”
Jung, one of South Korea’s most celebrated writers, has often been compared to Samuel Beckett, in part because his texts present themselves as seemingly unstructured cascades of thought. His narrators free associate; we wander through the closets of their consciousness, watching them pick at loose threads, unraveling their worlds and themselves like old clothes.
But while there isn’t much plot in “Vaseline Buddha,” things do happen. In that first scene, for instance, the narrator startles a would-be thief climbing up the gas pipes toward his bedroom window. After the thief falls and runs off into the darkness, the narrator wonders if it was his fault that the thief fell, or if there are some things for which there could be no fault.
This opening “trivial” happening sets off a series of discursions, which the narrator continually undermines as he expresses them, and which some readers might disparage as literary navel-gazing. But for those willing to go along with the metafictional moves and ouroboric sentences that cannibalize themselves, the book begins to alter, suddenly providing the “dream that you hold in your hand.”
It’s those mental perambulations that are the key to the dream the narrator weaves, transporting us, if not to Wuthering Heights or Wonderland, down a different rabbit hole: the foramen of consciousness.
It’s a dream of memories and stories, built out of both truths and lies, that is intoxicating precisely because it never pretends to be anything other than a dream. In that way, reading “Vaseline Buddha” feels like watching a magician who explains his trick as he performs it and yet still mesmerizes you with his sleight of hand. You simultaneously enter the dream and wake from it.
Like the “vaseline” of the title, “a compound word of the words water and oil,” the book exists in those liminal spaces between opposing forces, in “the gray area that can’t be named,” between dream and reality, between fact and fiction, and perhaps most important, between form and chaos.
Early on, the narrator claims, “What I want is to write something that depicts the fragmentary aspects of life, which are like a tangled skein, in a fragmentary manner, something that reflects my own life, which in itself is a great chaos, by creating and maintaining chaos, the greatest constituent of life.” Elsewhere, he says, “I think about forms of stories. But again, I feel, as I always have, resistance against a well-structured, complete story.”
This resistance underpinning the entire exercise makes Jung an heir to Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, who understood that writing is the documentation of a dance the writer does between form and chaos. The moment the writer writes, attempting to impose form on the grist of the universe, chaos erupts; yet the moment the writer tries to instill his work with chaos, patterns emerge.
Jung, with all his narrator’s chest-beating rants against form, still has to generate it to create a story. His forebear Gombrowicz never allowed his novels to side wholly with either the tyranny of form or the anarchy of chaos. He offered no solution to the problem; it was this tension in the art and the act of storytelling that kept him writing.
Likewise, Jung avoids offering solutions, giving us instead this “long thought” in the form (and the chaos) of a novel, hoping that that might be enough. It is.
Malone is a writer and professor of English. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Scofield and a contributing editor for Literary Hub.
Jung Young Moon, translated by Yewon Jung
Deep Vellum: 184 pp., $14.95