The following excerpt appears early in Vaseline Buddha (translated by Jung Yewon) yet contains all of the important themes and patterns, including the narrator’s interest in writing non-traditional narratives, his illness, and his reflections on death. It also contains crucial metafictional commentary on how the novel is constructed sentence-for-sentence, with its repeating use of “thought,” the book’s most important word. —Jason DeYoung
I’m somewhat curious as to what kind of a distorted story will result overall when you devote yourself to the details with no thought to the overall structure. One of the reasons why I don’t write stories with a clear structure or theme is because there’s something about such stories, in and of themselves, that make me shudder with their boredom, and another, because just one look at our reality will show you how far removed such stories are from our reality—or my own life, at least—and how different the truth of our reality is from what’s depicted in them
What I can write is a story that’s not quite a narrative, and is much too obscure and unstable. Not being obsessed with a completed story will create an opening into different territories in novels. A story with gaps and cracks and leaps and loopholes, a story that’s incomplete somehow, may more faithfully reflect real life. What exerts the greatest influence on my life is things without substance, and I’m turning my life into something without substance, and as I regard the struggle against things without substance, or tangible substance, as the only genuine struggle—this problem of mine seems to be a fundamental problem of the world as well—I have no choice but to clumsily write something without substance.
Make it a story, if possible, that’s not full of the power of narrative, a story seeking to break away from narratives whose naivety makes you smile, narratives that are dull because of their inherent tendency to seek power, and because their dull ideas are generally audacious, and their audacious aim to enlighten is inevitably dull. The persistent tendency in me to prevent the unfolding of a story, and the belief that there’s no narrative to life, could perhaps make that possible. There are, of course, people who believe that there’s a narrative to life, some of whom seek to turn their own lives into something with a narrative, through whatever means possible, and some of them do so with ambition, and some write narrative texts, and some reveal their ambition without hiding it, for it’s difficult to hide such an ambition when you have it, but among such people, there are probably some who come to realize that in the end, their lives can’t be a narrative, and that a narrative is not a principle that penetrates life, and turn their attention to something that’s not narrative. What I want to write is 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.
Perhaps I seek to write something that’s fit to be read on a rock in a forest you come to while on a daily walk, or in a café on a street where you’re traveling. I would bring into my story fragmentary stories whose pages, turned by the wind, can be read at random, stories that allow you to close your eyes while reading and dwell for a moment on a scene that can be taken out from the book and savored, stories that are far from being narrative. Even when I talk about the anecdotes, they will be stories that are not quite narratives, stories that cannot be narratives. Perhaps even as I talk about the anecdotes, I could talk about my impressions on the anecdotes and the thoughts created by those impressions, preventing the anecdotes from developing into narratives.
What I seek to emphasize as I write this story, which perhaps says nothing, and in which something becomes nothing when the standards are changed, or whose meaning or importance changes (Some of the stories I tell could end up being told somehow even though I had no intention of telling them, or tried not to tell them. And there will be almost no difference between some of them, even if there’s a difference between those that are told and those that are not told), is not the story itself, but ways in which stories are told (The ways would include saying something that doesn’t seem to make sense at one glance in a clever way so that it does make sense), and ideas that prevent something from degenerating into a story—ideas that prevent a story, even as it is told, from developing into a story in the end, or at least into a complete story—or, since many ideas come from things, something that is developing into ideas on things, or thoughts on thoughts I’m thinking, or on the pleasure or the difficulty of thinking, or thoughts on pleasure or difficulty itself.
And I’d have to subdue the various voices within myself that raise themselves or speak simultaneously—some of the voices seem to plead some kind of a difficulty, and some of them are on their way to understanding a cruel, merciless heart—or give weight to one of the voices. I’d have to close my ears to the end to the nastiest of them all, and press and suppress it, the voice that comes from the part deepest within me, the voice that denies everything, the voice that is used to silence or has learned to be silent.
Perhaps that is the result of a certain conflict between a figure I have designated as the first person narrator of the story I’m writing and myself, for it could be difficult for a narrator, who feels uncomfortable that the author’s voice slips in, and that his autonomy is violated, and the author, who sticks his head out while hiding behind the narrator, to speak in one voice. I already sense that the figure I have designated as the narrator would spoil the fun of the figure identified as the author, and dash cold water on the thoughts that the author has, possibly leading the author to stand up to him even more for fun, and the person actually writing this story could find himself in an awkward position between the narrator and the author, and have a difficult time arbitrating between the two and side with one of them at times, but find himself in an ambiguous position at times (Perhaps this story will be written by at least three people), and I’d have to write so that a calm tone and a cheerful tone cross and collide like dissonance, so that the unity of tone is broken, and tell the darkest story in the most cheerful way, or vice versa.
Anyway, there are other thoughts I’m obsessed with now, thoughts about death. Thoughts about death, of course, have always followed me around, and I’m as familiar with death as I am with the spots on my body I’ve had since I was born.
In light of the fact that although many things in life seem predetermined, nothing, in fact, is predetermined, and that you yourself can decide everything at every moment, and if you think carefully, very carefully on that fact, there come moments in which suicide, the best choice you can make, becomes very alluring, and such moments come to me far too often.
What I think about mostly, however, is death in general, not suicide through which I would murder myself, and not actual death, but something abstract, like the memory of a day when you shivered terribly in the cold, or a feeling you had upon seeing an abstract painting, or a sudden thought you have when looking at a dead fish, still intact, on your plate in a restaurant.
It’s summer now, and in full bloom by my bedroom window are trumpet creepers, which are known to be toxic, or which I somehow came to believe are toxic, though I don’t know whether or not it’s true, and which I could touch by reaching out a hand, over the wall of my neighboring house, and looking at them, I think of death once again. For some time, I had indulged in the idea that the toxin in the showy flower could make me die slowly, or at least go insane, and felt a strong desire to eat a trumpet creeper, and at one time had to realize that desire in another way, by coming up with the sentence, When a trumpet creeper dressed in the wrong clothes is going round and round many horses, you need to make an effort to row and go to the bottom of the lake.
Summer was always the most difficult season for me to endure; in any case, it was difficult for me to feel that way about any other season besides summer. It was difficult, at least, for me to do so as I did about summer. And that was because I thought summer was a difficult season for me, that it was inevitably a difficult season for me, but there really were aspects about summer that gave me a difficult time. For several years when summer came around, I felt that the summer would be difficult to endure, and each time, summer came to me as a season that would take me to a point of no return. Thus, summer seemed to be a season I had to stand up to, and I thought I could write something about an exhausting struggle and tragic loss of a summer, with the title, “The Record of a Summer’s Struggle,” or “The Record of a Summer’s Loss.” And I considered using one of them as the title of what I’m writing, but concluded that they were more fitting as the titles of certain periods you went through.
Nevertheless, I managed, barely, to endure through several summers that came to me, and was faced with another summer. And yet, although I didn’t know the exact cause—for I didn’t try to find out the exact cause—my condition was steadily growing worse, and so for a long time, I had a sort of a belief, the belief that I, or my condition, wouldn’t improve, that it would never improve, that it could go terribly wrong at one point, and the belief seemed excessive in a way.
But when this summer came around, I passed out in my house, as if through a miracle that comes to someone who has unshaken faith and clings to it, as if through the realization of a long-held belief, and the incident was something that had been foreseen through dizziness that had been growing worse for a long time, and I’d prepared for it in my own way, that is, by not doing anything. My terrible negligence of everything made that possible for me.
The physical ailment that I’d imagined would come to me, however, was seizure or leg trouble or something of the sort. I’d also thought at one time that if one of my legs became impaired, I could procure a nice cane, and with three legs, now that one had been added, take more complicated, rhythmic steps, which wouldn’t be possible with two legs (I actually took a very careful look at an old woman with bad legs at the park one day, taking modest steps, relying on a cane, submitting to a certain rhythm, and afterwards when I saw normal people walking, they seemed somewhat stupid and awkward. And if I carried around a cane, I could raise it and politely scare off a dog on a walk with its master, delighted to see me and about to come running even though we didn’t know each other, and prevent it from coming toward me, or use the cane to make the dog come closer as it changed its mind while coming toward me and refused to come any closer, feeling threatened by the cane I was holding or by me, holding the cane, or, before all this happened, I wouldn’t have to chase away the tiresome dogs one by one, for the dogs could lose their nerve early on, seeing the cane, and not come close. And as occasion demanded, I could scare someone off, acting as if I would beat him if necessary, even if I didn’t actually beat him with the cane, or I could, using the cane, pluck a ripe apple or a rose, hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, at a height I couldn’t reach with my hand. I’m of the opinion that anyone passing by should be allowed to pluck an apple or a rose hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, but once, I was caught by the owner while plucking a rose, and was somewhat humiliated. The owner of the house was a philosopher, well known to the public, and he was furious at me, as if quite upset that one of his roses had been stolen. The aged philosopher seemed to be of the philosophy that nothing that belonged to him should be taken away from him by anyone. But it was my philosophy, if I had any philosophy at all, that something so small as taking an apple or a rose without the owner’s permission should be allowed on this earth, still the only planet among the countless planets in the universe known to have life forms. A world in which you couldn’t pilfer a luscious fruit or a rose while taking a walk on a bright afternoon or in the middle of the night would indeed be a world without hope. After that, I saw the philosopher in front of his house, severely scolding a dog, though I’m not sure if it was his dog or someone else’s, or what it had done, and he was scolding it as menacingly as he did when I plucked one of his roses. In other words, I was scolded by him just as the hapless dog was scolded. Mercy was possibly the ultimate sentiment that a human could have toward other humans and living things, but it seemed that he had no mercy. He always seemed fraught with anger, and it was possible that he became angry even with his desk or dishes from time to time).
Nevertheless, the culmination of the persisting poor condition of my body in the form of dizziness seemed to be something that suited me as the final outcome, although I hadn’t secretly anticipated it, and it felt a little like a miracle when it actually happened because I’d been hoping in my heart that something would throw my life, which was much too tranquil in a way, and almost unrealistic—I had an earnest desire to disturb a stable condition, even as I sought stability—into confusion, albeit slightly.
When I was severely dizzy, I felt as if I were suffering from seasickness on land, and I accepted dizziness as my natural state of being by thinking that I knew that I was on a rotating earth because of my dizziness, and that dizziness was something quite natural you could feel on the earth, in this dizzy world, and sometimes, even when I kept still, I felt as if I were standing on a slab of ice floating down the river, or as if I were falling slowly, while at the same time soaring with an infinite lightness, into a seemingly bottomless space devoid of gravity, but also as if I were sinking, like some kind of a sediment, deep into the ocean where enormous pressure weighed down upon me, and at the same time, I felt as if my entire body were a building that was collapsing, unable to endure its own weight after many years.
But the dizziness I felt was something that could not be described properly through any color, shape, texture, figure of speech, or anything at all (One day, it seemed as if the floor of my room were slowly tilting this way and that—one of the symptoms of dizziness I felt could be described in this way—and it seemed that if there were balls on the floor, they would roll around here and there, but the problem seemed to lie in that I couldn’t free myself of the thought that my dizziness wouldn’t cease so long as it felt as if the nonexistent balls were rolling around on the floor and I failed to make the balls come to a stop), and I was frustrated, while at the same time fascinated, by the impossibility of describing the dizziness—I felt a bit of joy that I couldn’t describe the dizziness, which was purely because I was thinking about how easily the modifier “indescribable” was accompanied by the word “joy”—and thought that the only adjective that could describe it, inadequate as it was, was “uncontrollable (But is this an adjective?),” and that the dizziness some people felt was something that separated them from others, and would be as distinct and diverse as their personalities or appearances.
The moment I lost consciousness, I felt as if I were clutching the hem of a woman’s long skirt, that I was grasping it with more strength in my hand than was necessary, but I thought that in reality, the strength in my hand that was grasping it was leaving, and when I woke up after being unconscious for I don’t know how long, I was, in fact, loosely clutching the hem of the curtain on my kitchen window, made of thick velvet.
But what I couldn’t understand, above all, was how I’d woken up by the window, which was several steps away from the living room, when it seemed that I was in the living room when I collapsed. Perhaps I walked slowly toward the window the moment I collapsed, losing consciousness, or crawled quickly, when it wasn’t necessary, like some animal that
The sudden swooning brought me a peculiar sort of pleasure, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I could think that I was clutching a woman’s skirt hem, even as I lost consciousness and collapsed—I wasn’t sure, however, if this very Kafkaesque experience was an experience of Kafka’s, penned in one of his works, or my own—or if there was an inherent pleasure that could be found in the loss of consciousness, a pleasure that could be found if you sought to find it. The moment I lost consciousness, I actually thought that I was pulling and taking off a woman’s skirt, a daring yet rude thing to do, but one that was delightful in a way, and also thought that I couldn’t help laughing, though it wasn’t something to laugh about, but I don’t think I actually laughed.
The swooning also brought a peculiar sort of satisfaction, for there seemed to be an infinite space within the dizziness of swooning through which I could spread out infinitely, after being sucked up into the whirlpool of dizziness because of dizziness. And the incident gave me a sense of anticipation, a great sense of anticipation, for more to come in the future (Anticipation is a very strange thing, making you anticipate such things, and making you, at times, anticipate your own fall and decline above all).
Having woken up by the window, I felt as if I could lose consciousness again at any moment, and everything seemed like a lie, and I thought somewhat clearly that everything seemed like a lie, in a way that was different from the way in which life itself seemed like a lie, but that there was nothing strange about it. In the end, I felt an acute pain in my knee joint, which had been bad for some time, and while trying to focus on it, wondered, This pain, where’s its origin, and when was its origin? but it occurred to me that these expressions weren’t correct, so I wondered again, What is the origin of this pain? and wondered if this expression was correct, as I lost consciousness again, and this time, I woke up in the bathroom. I couldn’t remember how I’d made my way from the window to the bathroom, and why there, of all places, either.
Sitting crumpled on the bathroom floor, and feeling great sorrow this time, I thought that I’d never be able to regain my consciousness if I lost it again, and agonized over whether I should stay where I was, hoping to get better, or go to the emergency room, and if I were to go to the emergency room, how I’d get there, and thought that I’d never gone to the emergency room in an ambulance and felt an urge to do so, but in the end, I called a taxi, and while being taken away in a taxi, I clenched my hand tightly, as if I holding onto a string of consciousness which I’d lose forever if I let go, and thought that it wouldn’t matter that much even if I did lose consciousness, as if falling asleep, on my way to the hospital, and again thought, somewhat playfully, that if I swooned again, I should make sure to grab the hem of a woman’s skirt.
I got to the emergency room, and lay on a bed without being able to properly explain my symptoms to the doctor, and as he took certain measures, I wondered whether or not I should let go of the string of consciousness, and felt a strong desire to do so, even while fighting against it, and saw the curtains flapping in the open window, and remembered that it was while I was staying cooped up in a hotel in New York that I thought, looking at the curtains that were flapping in the same way, that I wouldn’t go outside unless a gigantic sailboat, with a full load and the sails taut with wind, entered through the window, and the memory brought me a strange, almost unbearable pleasure.
—Jung Young Moon translated by Jung Yewon
Jung Young Moon is the author of numerous works of fiction including Vaseline Buddha, A Contrived World, A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung has also translated more than forty books from English into Korean. In 2005 Jung participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.
Jung Yewon is the translator of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jung-eun. She is also the translator of No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and one of the co-translators of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young Moon, both published by Dalkey Archive as part of their Library of Korean Literature series.