- The Library of Musical Instruments
Tr. Kim Soyoung 2016230pp.
In “Glass Shield,” the fifth story in Kim Junghyuk’s collection, The Library of Musical Instruments, two bumbling, unemployed twenty-seven-year-old man-children rebrand themselves as performance artists. After a disastrous job interview, during which they attempt and fail to untangle skeins of yarn in an effort to display their patience, they take their yarn on the subway and untangle it there, then walk it through several cars while people look on in confused amusement. When a video of their caper goes viral, a friend calls and asks what they were doing. The narrator answers on the spot: “You know what? We were actually doing art.”
The Library of Musical Instruments is a thematically cohesive collection of eight stories—like notes on a scale—about art and music, objects and meaning. Most of the stories involve music in one way or another: a basement full of valuable records, a high-concept concert, a library of musical instruments; the characters are concert pianists, DJs, electric guitarists, record store clerks. In “Manual Generation,” a manual writer develops copy for a product called the Global Player, an MP3 player that resembles the Earth. “When using the Global Player,” he writes, “use the same precautions that might apply to the Earth. Regard the Global Player as the Earth.” The connection is not always so literal, but Kim is clearly interested in revealing the universe through music, and revealing the music in the universe. Even the stories without an explicit musical theme—“Glass Shield” and “Runaway Bus”—are all about finding art and patterns in everyday environments.
The central question of this collection is one that most artists grapple with at various points throughout their lives: What makes art, art? The characters in “Glass Shield” slap the label of art on their antics in order to give them worth. “We don’t even know what art is,” says the narrator. “I wish fooling around were art.” In “Automatic Piano,” a renowned pianist has his life changed by a documentary about a mysterious composer. He reacts violently to the composer’s thesis that “Music is not created but dissipated. Music is everywhere, although we don’t know where the sounds of music come from and where they go.”
Kim, on the other hand, seems to agree—many of his stories turn on this idea of art as discovery and extraction. For instance, the narrator of “Manual Generation” has a nearly identical insight about his own discipline: “It makes me wonder if the art of writing manuals is closer to excavation than to creation.” In the titular story, a man tries to live a meaningful life after surviving a brutal car crash. He finds work in a musical instrument store and spends his days sampling and recording the instruments’ myriad sounds—“playing with the instruments, not necessarily playing them…scratching, scraping, beating, plucking, petting, or pinching.”