A Modern Musical Allegory: The Library of Musical Instruments by Kim Junghyuk
- onJanuary 5, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- bySteph Cha
- 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.”
This discoverability doesn’t make art, or music, or meaning any simpler or less elusive. The narrator of “Automatic Piano” is derailed by his acquaintance with the composer. At the end of the story, he listens to a recording of his own performance and concludes, “But what I heard wasn’t music. It was nothing but noise generated when the pressed keys triggered the hammers to touch the strings.” This distinction is purely metaphysical—after all, what he describes as noise is what most would perceive and describe as music. Unsurprisingly, Kim shows a fetishistic interest in objects, with most of his stories focusing on physical vessels of meaning.
Kim’s writing has a surreal quality, with time dilating and contracting (musically, one might say), with few character names and only the loosest sense of place. His prose is mostly unremarkable and occasionally clumsy (though perhaps some of this is due to translation), but his simple style suits the stories, which often feel like allegory. Of course, Kim is also interested in technology, so his brand of allegory is sharply contemporary, old concepts and objects blending with new. A high-end piano maker, for example, using computers to produce top quality pianos with exact, unvarying parts—flawless execution, with none of the romance of the artisan.
These stories are fun and intriguing, fast, digestible tales vibrating with ideas. They do sometimes feel like they serve ideas at the expense of more traditional pillars of storytelling—most noticeably, character. Few of the characters feel real and three-dimensional; the eight narrators are strangely interchangeable, all of them men with similar voices. Still, The Library of Musical Instruments is full of innovative concepts and entertaining stories. Kim has created—or dissipated—a fascinating collection of modern allegory.
by Steph Cha
Author of Dead Soon Enough