Victory in Failure: What’s Left Behind: Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon

  • onOctober 14, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byMythili Rao
Vaseline Buddha
Tr. Jung Yewon

The opening scene of this experimental novel takes place in the middle of the night, when the narrator briefly comes face-to-face with a would-be thief attempting to clamber into his bedroom window. Startled, the thief stumbles to the ground. But rather than feeling vindicated, angry, or relieved, the narrator is strangely touched by the encounter: “It seemed that something left behind by the man who hadn’t taken anything from me was hovering around me, having faded without disappearing, like a lingering impression.” (p. 6)

That lingering sensation provides the impetus for Vaseline Buddha; as the narrator explains, “thinking into the morning, I think that perhaps what I’m about to write will be about thoughts on my own thoughts themselves, or things that occur in my thoughts.” (p. 7) And so he embarks on the project of crafting a work that deliberately resists a traditional narrative structure. The story—if it can be called that—languorously meanders from one ephemeral recollection to another, from one wayward meditation to the next. The narrator examines fleeting moments from his travels—incidents real, imagined, or both, that made an impression on him. He considers his own habits of thought. He ruminates over things he’s read, or heard, or vaguely pondered. 

Experimental fiction demands patience from its reader. In this lucid translation from Jung Yewon, Jung Young Moon explores the genre’s edges. Absent fixed characters, a plot, dramatic tension, or narrative focus, Vaseline Buddha lumbers on abstractedly, dragging the reader through a series of detours on a journey through his thoughts. The thoughts are intimate, and hint at a kind of spiritual searching, but Vaseline Buddha’s narrator guards against real self-disclosure. He considers the nature of thought, but only shares glimmers of his life—hints of an affair that wasn’t with a woman from Madagascar, a short tale of an aborted rendezvous with another woman in France, a dramatic retelling of a dramatic breakup in Paris (in a hotel looking out on the Eiffel Tower)—but nothing more. There’s a passing mention of a son (“I didn’t have the kind of relationship that most fathers have with their children with my son”), but these passages raise more questions about their relationship than they answer.

What do these fragments together create? It’s not altogether apparent, though a sense of yearning and dislocation permeates the work. Above all, Vaseline Buddha’s narrator is committed to circumventing the usual conventions of storytelling, no matter the outcome: “I may even feel a small private sense of victory in letting this story come, in the end, to a failure,” he confesses. (p. 133) If that sounds paradoxical, perhaps that’s the point. Vaseline Buddha is ultimately a kind of defiant exercise in summoning victory in failure, a book that takes pleasure in its opacity and invites readers to do the same. 



by Mythili Rao
Producer, WNYC Radio