[A Conversation with Jung Young Moon] Writing for Skeptics: Navigating Meaninglessness
- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byJustine Ludwig
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.