A Cloud Drifting over California: A Contrived World by Jung Young Moon

  • onAugust 2, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byMichael David Lukas
A Contrived World
Tr. Jeffrey Karvonen and Mah Eunji

“I might title this novel Drifting Clouds,” Jung Young Moon writes in the final paragraph of his new book (which is actually called A Contrived World), “because this novel, which is a confused play on thoughts and words, has no point at all, like drifting clouds.” (p. 195) It’s true that not much happens in A Contrived World, at least not in terms of plot. The obsessive and somewhat aimless narrator visits California, gets drunk on tequila in the desert, talks to a few homeless people in Golden Gate Park, tries on some hats in Honolulu, then returns home to Seoul. “This entire novel,” the narrator explains, “is a lengthy expression of my indescribable, intense boredom.” (p. 191) And yet, there is a point. One comes away from A Contrived World with an unforgettable impression of the narrator’s personality and voice. He is a neurotic, narcissistic, crude, and mirthless young man, but nevertheless one is reluctant to leave him behind when the novel is over.

Aside from a brief trip to Hawaii, A Contrived World takes place entirely in California. In the opening chapters of the book the narrator is visiting his exgirlfriend and her current boyfriend in Los Angeles. The remainder of the novel takes place primarily in San Francisco, where the narrator is living while on a fellowship, it seems, at UC Berkeley. The narrator has a very strong understanding of the state’s history and culture, and his descriptions of place are unconventional, but always apt. Take, for example, this description of the desert south east of Los Angeles: “We drove for a long time through a bleak landscape that barely changed, and so the place where we ended up seemed as though it only existed on a map.” (p. 5) His carefully observed depictions of San Francisco’s underbelly reveal a curiosity and genuine affection for the city, which he describes as being overrun with “deranged people,” “hobos,” and “drifters.” In one section, the narrator describes being harassed by a group of young vagrants in the park: “I wish there was a sign in Golden Gate Park that was similar to the one instructing visitors how to behave when confronted by a wild boar on the mountain, but that instead unambiguously delineated what to do when passing by young vagrants.” (p. 158) Like a sullen and highly distractible Alexis de Tocqueville, the narrator of A Contrived World wanders around California, opining and reflecting on everything from the statues in Washington Square Park to the Golden Gate Bridge’s popularity as a place to commit suicide, revealing along the way a certain truth about the true nature of the state.

In such a book, however, it is not the plot that matters. The beating heart of A Contrived World resides in the meandering and obsessive thoughts of the narrator. Each of his actions or ideas—whether shooting at cacti in the desert, erasing a name written in the sand, or examining his butt in the mirror—is subjected to a laconic, but unrelenting analysis. “I haven’t been able to take life seriously,” the narrator confesses, “and cannot concern myself with the facts of life, but only with my thoughts on those facts.” Thus, the novel consists of long sections dealing with topics such as the number of kernels on an ear of corn, the fate of the moles living under Golden Gate Park during the 1906 earthquake, or the quintessentially American sport of “noodling” (catching catfish with one’s bare hands). One might describe A Contrived World as Proustian, and the narrator does make a pointed allusion to Proust’s famous madeleine. But the novel bears much more in common with the socalled “autofiction” of Teju Cole and Ben Lerner (novels in which overeducated young men who resemble the author wander around foreign cities and ponder the meaninglessness of life).

What emerges from A Contrived World, over the course of two hundred pages, is a narrator whose worldview revolves around the twin poles of meaning and meaningless, obsession and ennui. Or, as the narrator puts it, while eating an unappetizing sandwich: “Fixating on the taste of mayonnaise in the sandwich, it occurred to me that I was writing fiction to seek revenge on nothingness, meaninglessness, and the baselessness of existence.” (p. 175) There are moments of humor in the book as well as a number of instances when the narrator’s depression breaks through his ironic detachment. But in the end, one comes away with an indelible sense of the narrator’s unrelenting curiosity, about California, the world, and the circuitous inner workings of the mind.  


by Michael David Lukas
Author of The Oracle of Stamboul


Author's Profile

Jung Young Moon graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in psychology. He made his literary debut in 1996 with the novel A Man Who Barely Exists. Among his works, Vaseline Buddha, A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories, A Chain of Dark Tales, and A Contrived World have appeared in English. He has won the Dongsuh Literary Award, the HMS (Hahn Moo-Sook) Literary Award, the Dongin Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award. He has participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2005. Jung is also an accomplished translator who has translated more than fifty books from English into Korean, including works by John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer.