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[A Conversation with Jung Young Moon] Writing for Skeptics: Navigating Meaninglessness

  • Provider
    Literature Translation Institute of Korea
  • Issued Date
    Vol.38 Winter 2017



Justine Ludwig: In your writing you present a tension between the “person actually writing this story,” the narrator, and the author. How do you negotiate these roles?

Jung Young Moon: At some point, my novels stopped having third-person protagonists and gradually moved towards a first-person narrator. In these works, the narrator is also the author, and because the reader can’t really separate the two, he or she doesn’t feel much of a tension between narrator and author. The reader is captivated by the narrator’s compulsion to tell the story, and if the author—who can’t help but be caught up in the idea that all stories are pointless anyway—decides for some reason to take the lead, it feels like he or she is trying to delay or suspend the action.


Ludwig: Nothingness and banality appear as sources of inspiration in your publications. How do you mine these traditionally monotonous conditions to create a dynamic narrative?

Jung: In my life and in my novels, nothingness is the biggest problem that I wrestle with. Well, not nothingness per se, which is itself perfect and free of problems, but the fraught issue of the fact that we don’t know the reason why our world came to exist and that we never will know—that’s existence’s biggest paradox. This world that we know is not eternal—at some point it will end—and eventually it will return to nothingness. This world that I know is a world with no necessary reason for existing, no goal. In my novels, narrative as it’s traditionally understood is absent, and when there is narrative, it’s to the slightest possible degree, and conflict between the characters in the novel and dramatic developments are honestly nonexistent. In short, there’s almost no romantic or novelistic framework. I purposefully rule out those things, and that’s because I think that they consist of an endless repetition of very small and trite things that people will mostly forget about as their lives go on. Many people think that novels reflect real life, but they still expect the novel to have drama in it, and the truth is that drama is hard to find in real life. Novels with a drama-based narrative are only a very small part of the large and varied spectrum of the novel genre. The dated concept that novels are narrative by design is all too predominant, and that constricts the freedom that novelists have to explore new potentials for the genre. The twentieth-century novels that were really revolutionary and turned a new leaf in the history of novels were mostly free of narrative, and they tried to knock down this old idea that novels are narrative. The more that novels stay faithful to existent norms of composition, the more boring they become. On the other hand, the less they worry about novelistic structure, the more they ignore that, the freer and more experimental with style they can become. By ignoring the things that are seen as absolutely necessary in novels—even subject, structure, and plot—you can go on to create a new structure for the novel. When I write, the biggest worry I have in regards to structure has to do with the novel itself. With the medium of the novel, I’m using language and ideas to play a kind of pure game. Many of my novels are made up of wordplay: trains of thought that carry on endlessly, continuing until my thoughts about a certain concept extinguish completely, things like that. This is more visible in A Contrived World than in my prior novel Vaseline Buddha, and you can also see it in my collection of short stories Arriving in a Thick Fog, which came out in South Korea this year and is currently being translated to be published in America next year. In A Contrived World, there’s a chapter called “The Fruit That Did Not Roam the Pacific Ocean Because of My Complete Lack of Motivation.” Like the name suggests, the chapter is an anecdote in which I go to the Golden Gate Bridge, the world’s most popular suicide destination, and bring several kinds of fruit with the intention of throwing them into the Pacific Ocean. I end up not doing so because of a lack of desire and finally throw them out underneath a tree in a San Francisco park. I was happy to be able to draw out such a meaningless story, really no different from conceptual art, to twenty full pages. I think that meaningless is the ultimate topic in literature, and awareness of meaninglessness frees us from the shackles of our lives. Because this world is meaningless, I don’t think there’s anything that absolutely has to happen in our lives. And this means that as long as we don’t hurt others, we have the freedom to do whatever we want. I do despair that we can’t ever know the ultimate meaning of existence, so I’m a dreadful skeptic, but skeptics also accept everything with an air of amusement. In one of my medium-length novels, I wrote that I am close to being a socialist in winter, an anarchist in spring and fall, and a libertarian in summer, but always a skeptic regardless of the season. This was a joke, but I think that everything I write is kind of a joke.


Ludwig: What is the purpose of writing in a world with no necessary reason for existing? Perhaps dedicating oneself to meaninglessness is the ideal position for a skeptic?

Jung: In a world where there is no real reason for existence, writing with a goal is impossible. You can’t help but become a skeptic in the face of absolute meaninglessness. I think that Samuel Beckett is the writer who was most cognizant of this. Later in his life, his writing became almost nonsensical; it was no different from if he’d written nothing at all. It surrendered to the lack of reason, I think, and accepted defeat. It seems like the only way to deal with this meaninglessness is by accepting and making peace with it.


Ludwig: I like how you equate your writing to conceptual art. That makes me wonder what you see your relationship to the reader as. The commitment to a novel is far more time-consuming and demanding than the commitment to a conceptual work of visual art. Perhaps asking for that dedication and never knowing where it goes is part of your conceptual framework?

Jung: In “Arriving in a Thick Fog,” there’s an anecdote in which I bring a stone that I picked up on the bank of the Mississippi River to South Korea’s Gangwon Province, where I leave it on a mountain. I then take a stone from this mountain in Gangwon and leave it in a forest in Hawaii. Then I take a stone from the forest in Hawaii and throw it into the Strait of Dover in England. The chapter has another story where I imagine swimming across an expansive lake in the middle of the night during a full moon, a fraying rope in my mouth and a cold smile on my face. I think of these stories as a kind of performance art. Many of my novels feature scenes that consist of conceptual or visual imagery. When I’m planning out a novel, I oftentimes have some memorable scene, or characters or objects come to mind, and I take note of the sort of movement that they inspire as time passes and use this to structure the novel. You could interpret many parts of my novels as visual art expressed in prose form. Sometimes when I’ve started writing a novel but don’t know how to move forward, the thing that paves the way for me is those series of connected and disconnected images.



Ludwig: Throughout your texts you negotiate the role of reality and imagination in storytelling by directly negating previously established conditions. What led you to this stylistic strategy?

Jung: I’m a skeptic and I don’t have any interest in spreading a message or impressing emotions through my novels. Building upon things I’ve already written and then rejecting them is honestly the same as if I’ve said nothing at all. Ultimately, this means that the things I say in my novels are all meaningless.


Ludwig: In reading your work I become wrapped up in a natural cadence as if the words were coming forth equally from the reader and the writer. It is a sort of radical intimacy that offers a conflation between the positioning of the teller of the story and its receiver. Has this innate flow always been present in your writing? How did you come to this approach?

Jung: At first I was creating these conventional, romanticized characters, but at some point my novels changed to stories composed mainly of strings of connected thoughts in which the first-person narrator is triggered by the most trivial events. When the reader can freely entrust his or her own thoughts to those of the narrator’s, you realize that the two are really not so different.


Ludwig: Your style also brings attention to the frustration often inherent in the writing process—something I certainly suffer through when I write. It appears that at times your ostensibly stream-of-consciousness writing echoes the technique of writing any and all things that come to mind in order to combat writer’s block. Is this continuous flow established in a singular pass or something that is achieved through trial and error or in the editing process?

Jung: Writer’s block is an unavoidable obstacle to the author, and every writer has felt the frustration of being unable to overcome it. But when you finally do circumvent or skip past this seemingly impassable obstacle, when you write down those words that have allowed you to break out of the block, your words find a new direction from which to exit. I like to think of writing as losing my path in a dense forest. When my path is blocked and I have to find a new one, I turn my eyes in a direction I haven’t imagined for myself at all. The interruption of my thoughts at that moment is really a lucky blessing, and of course on the new path I’ve taken unintentionally, that luck will continue. Thoughts mostly arise randomly, and most of them are not things you can put into words, so you have to tighten the reigns on those few that can be driven in a certain direction. I tend to tighten my reigns as loosely as possible to allow the thought to develop on its own.


Ludwig: Travel and the relationship between the unfamiliar and the quotidian appear central to your narrative interest. Are you interested in the legacy of the travel memoir?

Jung: You could say that my writing is more like a twisting of the travel memoir legacy in a strange and exciting way. I’m uninterested in people experiencing exotic things. What I am interested in is the everyday, or experiences and things I see in my travels that inspire imagination in my own way. In “Wild Hawaiian Rooster,” one of the chapters of A Contrived World, the narrator is staying in San Francisco and intends to travel somewhere else, but he can’t think of anywhere he wants to go. As he is drinking coffee at a hotel, he learns serendipitously that the last king of Hawaii died there unexpectedly, and this makes him think of a story of Richard Brautigan in Hawaii. Brautigan had gone there to give a lecture but afterwards, in his remaining time on the island, became so bored that he had to try and think of things worth doing there. Finally, he found a live chicken and took a picture with it, and then he was able to leave the place happily. The narrator uses this story as a catalyst to go to Hawaii himself, and as expected, it’s dull. Unexpectedly, however, he sees a wild rooster in the forest and like Brautigan is able to leave Hawaii happily. Several years ago, I stayed in Aix-en-Provence in France through a writer’s residency program, but this small city—so famous as a tourist destination—was so dull to me that I spent my time there writing a mid-length novel called In Penal Colony X, just making fun of the city. As I wrote stories about these places that were so boring to me—Hawaii and Aix-en-Provence—I began to see them as something a little more special.



Ludwig: What other writers have inspired your work?

Jung: Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Richard Brautigan. These are the writers who looked into the depths of existence’s emptiness and plunged into despair and depression, but they’re the most humorous writers, too. More than anything else, I learned humor from them.


Ludwig: How do you approach the role of translation in your work when you have a history of translating English text into Korean and your own writing directly addresses the shortcomings of Korean in supporting your stylistic choices?

Jung: I didn’t separately learn how to write novels. As I translated great English works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and The Ebony Tower by John Fowles, I very naturally became familiar with how one writes a novel. I think that translating really is the best practice for your own writing. From translating, we become accustomed to a literary style, and I think that because of that, my books are free from some of the conventions of Korean wording.


Ludwig: How then do you experience the translations of your own novels? Do they appear changed or foreign once presented in a different language?

Jung: My novels are written in Korean, but they rarely take place in a specified location, and I refer to my characters with personal pronouns rather than names. My novels don’t deal with any particularly Korean sentiment either, so there’s almost nothing that’s uniquely Korean about them. They aren’t restricted by time or place, and the stories they tell are commonplace, so when they’re translated into foreign languages, they don’t feel unfamiliar to readers. 


by Justine Ludwig
Senior Curator, Dallas Contemporary

by Justine Ludwig

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