We meet our narrator before dawn, fretting about a story he wants to write, as someone attempts to break into his apartment through the bedroom window. “It was an astonishing sight but I didn’t cry out because I felt as if I were dreaming,” the narrator says. Already, he has called into question whether or not we can trust him, or whether he should even trust himself. Or perhaps Jung is simply signaling that he’s having trouble writing a story. What he really wants is to allow his train of thought to take over, which it does, at a frenetic pace. A book has to start somewhere, so why not there?
Between the reams of strange recollections and the things that didn’t actually happen in places we can’t be sure he’s ever been, the narrator constantly reminds the reader that what we’re reading is not exactly a novel: “What I can write is a story that’s not quite a narrative, and is much too obscure and unstable.” He is quite forthright about his intentions and his process, even going so far at the outset to explain:
I could begin with certain thoughts that have a strong or loose hold over me, and certain subjects made up of a series of those thoughts, things I’ve thought about for a long time and thought about linking together, death and travel and everyday life, for instance, and an overlapping mixture of these things, and see, with a bit of curiosity, how the subjects that I think could link together do link together in the story. In the process, I’ll add thoughts to certain memories, bring memories into certain ideas, and link separate images into successive images (this story is also a story about the process of writing a story).
The narrator, a writer himself, resists any impulse to impose structure on his own novel, and even claims it is beyond his capability. At one point, there are pages and pages on which every paragraph begins with the word “And,” as the narrator, in run-on sentences, breathlessly skims along the surface of word associations, propelling us through memories, concepts, and ideas.
In On Dreams, Freud proposes that “if an uncertainty can be resolved into an ‘either-or,’ we must replace it for purposes of interpretation by an ‘and’ and take each of the apparent alternatives as an independent starting-point for a series of associations.” It would seem that Jung (the novelist, not Freud’s great contemporary), who studied psychology at Seoul National University, had this bit of wisdom rattling around in his head as he composed Vaseline Buddha. Freud suggested that “and” connects the seemingly disparate ideas or elements of a dream world, and uncovers the patterns or connections of a working, interpretable structure. Just as poets search for a word to fit a rhyme scheme, causing surprising new meanings and links to arise, such less-than-random associations happen in dreams and in reality.
As in a dream, the reader can drop herself anywhere into this novel to watch Jung’s stream of consciousness develop and his associations pile up, seemingly without structure. The narrator’s unchecked, labyrinthine ramblings betray an underlying self-awareness; he’s unmanageably erratic, but remarkably logical, and just when you think you’re going to be stuck in his dreamscape forever, the narrator will catch himself and start to interpret or question his own mental wandering on the reader’s behalf. Somehow, this back and forth ends up constituting a story.
Vaseline Buddha is purported to be automatic writing, but this seems a stretch considering just how lucid Jung’s narrator is. Though the writing does often verge on the surreal, Jung’s novel doesn’t fit founder of surrealism André Breton’s definition — “thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.” Only a few times does it feel as if Jung falls full-on into this mode, always first warning the reader that he’s about to do. While feeding apricots to a cow, the narrator muses:
[T]hese thoughts I was having now could be included and further developed in what I was writing, and thought about endlessly going on with such sentences, and writing a novel by doing so, and above all, feeling tempted to make and commit intentional mistakes in my writing, and thought about whether or not it was possible to make intentional mistakes.
This isn’t perception without the “aesthetic or moral preoccupations” Breton described, and his thoughts never stray far from the task at hand. Namely: The composing of a strange, unstable novel, one that must be undercut whenever it gets too novel-like. The lack of structure and plotlessness may be jarring at first, and the level of self-awareness typified by overly meta asides can occasionally get repetitive, but Jung has created a unique voice that eclipses the novel’s lack of narrative structure. Indeed, his technique becomes increasingly familiar and enjoyable the deeper into the book one gets. One can even forgive the repetitiveness, because just like the leitmotifs Jung returns to, do we all not return to the same ideas or concerns when we let our minds wander? Some things turn out simply to be more pressing, to our subconscious minds, than others.
Stylistically, Vaseline Buddha has its roots in books like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, which Slavic language scholar Victor Erlich described as a fictional soliloquy where “the ‘I’ is not merely the principal subject of the utterance, but also perforce its only recipient, the only possible or available audience. Monologue becomes thus a matter of talking about oneself to oneself.” Jung’s narrator shares this mode of speaking with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and shares some of his preoccupations, too, including an obsession with his own, possibly hypochondriacal, illness: “a cycle of relapse, temporary improvement, and sudden relapse again.” He doesn’t spew acid like the Underground Man, but he does carry a light-hearted resentment of the world, which he calls a “terrible, obscure state in which I didn’t want to do anything for myself, and […] I thought as negatively as possible, as if on purpose, although it wasn’t on purpose.” Jung’s narrator never seems to be in complete control of his situation, caught in a web of dreams, reality, and memory that overpowers his own agency. His inability to stick with a story is the narrator’s only real conflict. He’s held at the whim of his own — or the author’s — thoughts.
While sitting in the French countryside, thinking about the Hundred Years War, the narrator ties his belt around a tree that he believes is getting old. “I thought from time to time about the tree around which I had wrapped a belt,” he remembers, “and felt happy to think that somewhere, there was a tree wearing a belt, one of the few trees in the world wearing a belt, perhaps the only one.” The narrator often finds pleasure in such strange, small moments that defy logic, moments that reveal the novel’s true essence, not as surrealist, but existentialist, in which a few leitmotifs are the closest we get to a plot. Jung’s narrator revels in the absurd, seeking enjoyment and meaning in trivial non sequiturs, constantly thinking “about how much [he] enjoy[s] doing things that [are] meaningless in themselves.”
Absurd or stridently anti-realist literature has a strong tradition in Korea, dating back at least to Yi Sang (1910–1937), possibly the single most towering figure of Korean modernism. Yi, who was influenced by both Dadaism and surrealism, wrote during the height of Korea’s first great modern schism, caused by Japanese colonial rule. As the poet Ji Yoon Lee has noted, “Because [Yi’s] poems weren’t stable or safely interpretable, they were suspected of being politically motivated, and thus a threat to the system of colonial oppression.” Yi’s commitment to producing work that was subject to multiple interpretations left a lasting impression on the literature that has followed.
Much of this literature deals, both implicitly and explicitly, with the unique circumstances of Korea’s recent history. In Yi’s case it was the dual consciousness of the colonized mind, a catastrophic partition of the psyche. After World War II, this partition merely shifted to one delineated by an arbitrary demilitarized zone across which North and South Korea stare each other down. In South Korea, furthermore, a deep schism has also appeared as tradition and modernity clash. The South’s economy has had nothing short of a meteoric rise, but it has left profound inequality and fragmented traditional social structures, attended by repression and exploitation. Many contemporary writers, such as poets Kim Hyesoon, Kim Yideum, and Kim Kyung Ju, and novelists Park Min-gyu, Hwang Sok-Yong, and Han Kang, have taken up Yi’s mantle in addressing these profound schisms experienced on the peninsula through decidedly anti-realist or surreal means.
Jung’s novel is unusual in the context of popular Korean literature, in that his narrator barely touches on Korean culture and history. It’s not even clear if the story takes place in Korea. Deep in the novel is a single passage that jumps from Stalin at the Yalta conference to the Korean War, but as Jung’s narrator is wont to do, he quickly leaves this behind so he can wonder about Hitler’s obsessions about hygiene and cats and what dictators think about before falling asleep. Nonetheless, Jung employs a schismatic technique where reality and fiction, narrator and author, collapse into singularity, reflecting the psyche of modern Korea as it grapples with the collision of tradition and high technology, Confucian strictures and modern conceptions of the individual.
Jung’s narrator is a mental traveler, or as he prefers a “wanderer,” and a global one. “I thought about getting lost in my own story about traveling,” he writes, “Or in other words, making the story continue to deviate” because he wants “to get a taste of the difficulty, trouble, and pleasure of getting lost in a story.” When we’re not wandering in an invented world, we’re hopping over to Europe in search of something that Jung never quite finds, though he finds lots of other interesting things there. This is the cross a writer — and their reader — bears. You head into a story thinking it will go one way, but by the end you’ve found yourself somewhere completely different, with a bemused grin, wondering how you got there and happy that you took the journey.
The novel raises questions about story, and how stories are created. It muses on where thoughts come from, how they act on us, and how to live a life that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while still earnestly engaging with the world. Jung’s work is as a hybrid of fiction, journal, and philosophical aphorisms. It begins in a place where meaning is of little concern, and ends by asking the reader to build up her own meaning while enjoying Jung’s fragments for the small, precious pleasures they provide. As Jung’s narrator notes: “It suddenly occurred to me that there may never have been a moment in my life when I was genuinely happy, except for the moments when I was happy for no reason at all.”