A Modernist of Humor and Lyricism: Writer Jung Young Moon

  • onOctober 19, 2014
  • Vol.19 Spring 2013
  • byHan Eun-hyeong

The year 2012 could be called “the year of Jung Young Moon.” Jung received three major literary awards, one after another, for A Contrived World, published in 2011. A warm reception not enjoyed by the author throughout the publication of a dozen books since 1997 suddenly and belatedly washed over him. Of his works, the short story collections A Chain of Dark Tales and Pierrot on the Moon have been translated, the former into English and French and the latter into German, and A Most Ambiguous Sunday and An Afternoon of the Faun, also short story collections, are currently undergoing translation, as well as the novel, Vaseline Buddha.

Jung writes novels in which the narrators do everything in their imagination. The author, who rarely ever permits clichés, talks about “nothingness” as he describes ugliness instead of beauty, distinguishes between wretchedness and misery, ridicules rather than mocks, transforms ideas into lyricism, and goes from daydreams to delusions. To the author, an impressionist of languor, or an avant-garde lyricist, humor is language, ethics, and light.


Relationships: Insomnia and Writing, Narrator and Author

Han Eun-hyeong: Congratulations on receiving three literary awards last year for A Contrived World.*

Jung Young Moon: I’m all the more pleased, because all three awards are among the most prestigious in Korea, and are given without commercial considerations.

Han: You’ve been known to suffer from severe insomnia. When did it start? There are many references to insomnia in your works—does it have an effect on your works?

Jung: It started when I began writing these wretched things called novels. It began to get severe about 10 years ago, I think. A normal brain automatically switches over to sleeping mode when it’s time, but my brain always malfunctions. A lot of thoughts come to me as I lie awake in bed, tossing and turning. Sleepless hours, for me, are also hours in which I can concentrate on writing. Recently, I had this thought—naming each night’s sleep wouldn’t help me fall asleep, but it could be better than counting sheep, I should name tonight’s sleep, the confusion of a racehorse that abandons the fallen jockey and runs away without even looking back. Then I made the following note. “But as the horse runs far, far away, my sleep, too, runs far, far away, when the jockey is passed out and sleeping. Will the jockey leap to his feet and go after the horse if I wake him? It seems that I’ll be able to fall sleep only if the jockey runs and catches the horse. It’s a good night to go for a walk on a quiet street on which standing statues are looking down, in some place like Torino, Italy, where standing statues stand here and there on the streets, on a street with equestrian statues, where fallen jockeys have disappeared without a trace.” In the end, I stayed up all night that night, thinking such thoughts, but at least I could think that I had thoughts that were good for staying up all night with.

Han: You’re an author who’s suspected to be almost identical to the narrators of his novels. In what way does Jung Young Moon, the author, differ the most from his narrators? How close, and how far, is he from the narrators?

Jung: Suspected, you say? You could say that all the novels I’ve written so far are my own stories. I have a hard time distancing myself from the narrators of my novels. There is both good and bad to it, I think. The good being that there are no feelings of disparity and awkwardness that come when you tell a story through a narrator whose personality is completely different from yours, since you can assimilate yourself completely to the character and immerse yourself in him. And you don’t have to take the trouble of gaining new understanding or knowledge about an unfamiliar narrator. The bad would be that I expose myself too completely through the narrator. So there are times when I feel as if I’m being stripped. Personally, though, I think that’s a good thing as well.

Han: You say that the narrators of the novels are Jung Young Moon himself, but the alter egos seem quite varied.

Jung: Even the things I actually experienced go through a lot of transformations and distortions in the different contexts of the novels. The characters in the novels I’ve written so far show different sides in different situations, but maybe they could be merged into a single character. They exist in a world called reality, but are abstract, conceptualized figures. You could say that they are people whose basis of thought is made up of their feelings about and awareness of a sense of boredom and emptiness regarding life. The characters in my works, with a consciousness of language on a fundamental level, talk endlessly of emptiness, suffer from the boredom of life, and a sense of helplessness regarding life.


Boredom, Humor, and Irony

Han: An Afternoon of the Faun is a beautiful collection of short stories. “Mrs. Brown,” a story in this collection, is somewhat different from your other works. It has a central story and a plot. Did you write it with a certain resolve?

Jung: An Afternoon of the Faun is the collection I personally have the most affection for. It’s been translated into English and is scheduled to be published this fall by Dalkey Archive Press, a prestigious U.S. publisher. “Mrs. Brown,” a story with a relatively clear plot, is unusual among my works, which rarely have a plot. It’s a sort of absurd drama, in which a robber breaks into a house in the suburbs of a small town in the U.S. and does ludicrous things, such as making a request to play the piano while he sings, without even asking for money. I wrote it after watching the news about a robbery that actually took place while I was at the University of Iowa in the U.S. for the 2005 International Writing Program. I’d never written a story with a clear motif, and such stories never had an appeal for me, and even while writing this story I thought it didn’t really suit me, so I felt ill at ease writing it. It’s a somewhat abrupt piece of work, different from the other, ambiguous pieces in An Afternoon of the Faun.

Han: The sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” which appears repeatedly in Vaseline Buddha, is a sentence composed by Chomsky, a sentence that’s semantically incorrect but beautiful. Do you consider it your literary motto?

Jung: When I was writing the novel, I tried to give it a general overtone like that of the sentence. I wanted to write a novel that was indefinable, one that could be read in a variety of ways.

Han: Humor is based on intellect, isn’t it? Vaseline Buddha is an interesting, unique work in itself, but I felt that you were training your intellect for the humor that was to come into full bloom in A Contrived World. How do you feel about that?

Jung: Humor is something that lies at the core of my works. And what I see as humor always involves the irony of the futility of existence. You could say that the two novels are a work in two parts, that something that revealed itself in Vaseline Buddha took on a more concrete shape in A Contrived World. No, now that I’ve said it, it doesn’t seem that way. I think the two are separate pieces of work.

Han: I laughed countless times while reading A Contrived World. I don’t want to use a word like this, but I felt healed, in a way. How much did you laugh while writing it?

Jung: I laughed by myself now and then. But I didn’t experience any healing myself. Even while writing it, I suffered from extreme boredom and feelings of emptiness. I think the humor came about naturally in the process of putting up with those feelings.

Han: I got the impression that you were obsessed with describing the appearance of ugly women. The narrator is strangely moved while describing ugliness. Why is that? Is it because it’s naive and simple to describe beautiful women?

Jung: About good-looking men or beautiful women, there’s nothing more to say than that they’re beautiful, but there’s great individuality to an ugly face, with much to describe, and the descriptions can be fun, I think. There’s something moving about an ugly woman, to be sure.

1. Vaseline Buddha

Jung Young Moon

Jaeum & Moeum Publishing Co.

2010, 276p, ISBN 9788957075135


2. A Contrived World

Jung Young Moon

Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.

2011, 294p, ISBN 9788932022253


3. An Afternoon of the Faun

Jung Young Moon

Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.

2008, 303p, ISBN 9788954605793


The Imagination and Reality of a Stateless Writer

Han: Is there anything you’d like to say to readers abroad?

Jung: From the beginning, I started writing novels that were far from what they call “Korean,” and almost none of my works reveal clues that lead you to assume that the setting is in Korea. My works deal with universal human existence and emotions, so no matter what your nationality, you’ll feel almost no sense of disparity that comes from reading foreign novels. I think trained readers in search of novels that are serious and humorous at the same time will enjoy my works.

Han: Do you see yourself as a Korean writer?

Jung: I see myself as a stateless writer who just happens to write in Korean.

Han: What would you say is the most distinguishing characteristic of your novels?

Jung: I’d say it’s that they have no narrative, and are mostly made up of disconnected, fragmentary anecdotes and ideas. Nothing really happens, and the narrator’s consciousness makes for a large part of the works. You could say that I’m continuing the tradition of Kafka and Beckett, great modernists of the 20th century.

Han: How do you come up with ideas?

Jung: Sometimes I base a work on the smallest bit of an idea, and sometimes, I come up with as many ideas as possible, and then remove the traces of thinking as much as possible in the final stage, making the work look as if it were written without any thought at all.

Han: You seem to be a writer who’s particularly sensitive to the nuance of words. What whimsical, fun thoughts have you had lately?

Jung: I was at a friend’s house recently, sitting on her sofa with her Maltese puppy in my lap, folding and unfolding its ears over and over again, thinking that in English, the folded corner of a page is called a “dog ear.” As I sat there doing that without talking, I sensed that she wanted me to stop, but I didn’t. The dog looked up at me as if it didn’t know what was going on, and as I sat there quietly looking down at the dog, I felt as if I’d come to her house to fold and unfold the dog’s ears over and over again. In the end, my friend told me to stop folding and unfolding her Maltese’s ears and go home, and I ended up going home, leaving one of the dog’s ears folded, and even after I got home, I went on thinking that the dog’s ear would remain folded until the next morning, at least. The next morning, I didn’t call her to see if the dog’s ear was still folded, but I did think that a Maltese was a dog whose ears were good for folding. I’ve folded back the ears of many dogs, and a Maltese’s ears actually stayed folded the best.

Han: Lastly, if you could tell me about any repetitive thought you’ve had lately, groping in the dark or in a haze, what would it be?

Jung: It’s a slight twist on the title of Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice—I started writing a story about someone who goes to Venice and meets his end after writing a novel about someone who meets his end after writing a novel called An End in Gangwondo (a province in Korea), or someone who goes to Gangwon Province and meets his end after writing a novel about someone who meets his end after writing a novel called An End in Venice, or someone who thinks about writing such a novel but meets his end without ever writing it, but it’s unclear even as to whether he goes to Gangwon Province or Venice, or if everything is real or merely imagined, and the narrator falls endlessly into hazy thoughts, even as he writes. That’s the general idea, but I don’t know how it’s going to unfold or end.


by Han Eun-hyeong

1. Mondestrunken

Jung Young Moon, Edition Delta

2012, 191p, ISBN 9783927648432


2. A Chain of Dark Tales

Jung Young Moon, Stallion Press

2011, 210p, ISBN 9789810853655


3. Pour ne pas rater ma dernière seconde

Jung Young Moon, Romanichels

2007, 192p, ISBN 9782845960879



* In 2012, Jung received the HMS Literary Award, the Dong-in Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award for his novel, A Contrived World, published in 2011. No other work in Korea has been awarded these three awards simultaneously.