By Jung Young Moon
Translated from the Korean by Yewon Jung
A tour-de-force in automatic writing from South Korea's eccentric, award-winning contemporary master delves into subconscious worlds blending reality and imagination.
Publication Date: July 5, 2016
"If someone in the future asks in frustration, 'What has Korean literature been up to?' we can quietly hand them Vaseline Buddha." —Pak Mingyu
A tragicomic odyssey told through free association scrubs the depths of the human psyche to achieve a higher level of consciousness equal to Zen meditation. The story opens when our sleepless narrator thwarts a would-be thief outside his moonlit window, then delves into his subconscious imagination to explore a variety of geographical and mental locations—real, unreal, surreal—to explore the very nature of reality.
Jung Young Moon was born in Hamyang, South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea, in 1965. He graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in psychology. He made his literary début in 1996 with the novel A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung is also an accomplished translator who has translated more than forty books from English into Korean, including works by John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer. In 1999 he won the 12th Dongseo Literary Award with his collection of short stories, A Chain of Dark Tales. In 2005 Jung was invited to participate in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program and in 2010 the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Korean Study invited him to participate in a three-month-long residency program. In 2012, he won the Han Moo-suk Literary Award, the Dong-in Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award for his novel A Contrived World, which is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive, who also published his short story collection A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories in 2014.
Jung Yewon was born in Seoul, and moved to the US at the age of 12. She received a BA in English from Brigham Young University and an MA from the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Included in Words Without Borders's July 2016 Watchlist
Included in Book Riot's "8 Small Press Books to Read in July 2016"
"Reading Vaseline Buddha feels like watching a magician who explains his trick as he performs it and yet still mesmerizes you with his sleight of hand. You simultaneously enter the dream and wake from it...This resistance underpinning the entire exercise makes Jung an heir to Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, who understood that writing is the documentation of a dance the writer does between form and chaos." —Tyler Malone, Los Angeles Time
"The novel raises questions about story, and how stories are created. It muses on where thoughts come from, how they act on us, and how to live a life that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while still earnestly engaging with the world. Jung’s work is as a hybrid of fiction, journal, and philosophical aphorisms. It begins in a place where meaning is of little concern, and ends by asking the reader to build up her own meaning while enjoying Jung’s fragments for the small, precious pleasures they provide." —John W. W. Zeiser, Los Angeles Review of Books
"We wade into these... streams of consciousness and are swept away in a current of fluid thought, as sensation and ideation merge into a movement of molecules, a tide in perpetual flux." —Tyler Malone, Literary Hub
"A remarkable work for its eccentric modes of thought and how it looks beyond the basic novel form and asks important secondary questions of where fiction is left to go.” —Jason DeYoung, Review31 (a "Best Novels of 2016" selection)
"By continuing to reject the instinct for the order of things, the novel seeks to shed darkness on glimpses of the void. In those intense moments of deconstruction, the nothing that the language cannot express can be felt briefly in a moment of silent understanding amid cascade of words." —Jack Saebyok Jung, Quarterly Conversation
"The book echoes the hectic nature of life itself, how chaotic and challenging it can be at times… certainly not a conventional novel, but it is one that challenges and enriches any reader who takes the time to follow Jung Young Moon as he contemplates the world around him.” —Louisa Lee, Inspire Me Korea
"Jung Young Moon’s work is remarkable for its eccentric modes of thought and how it tests the limits of the novel and our notions of what fiction can do. It looks beyond the basic form and asks important secondary questions of where fiction is left to go. It also reveals crisply the cryptic nature of everyday life, which if examined with deep seriousness, will inevitably lead to deep absurdity—and that makes its futility somewhat pleasing." —Jason De Young, Numero Cinq Magazine
"The book plays directly to the central questions of the act of writing: Should writing be driven by order or chaos? Should it structure the universe or reflect its seeming randomness? Is the imposition of form a virtue of a vice? On that front, it feels akin to writers like Gombrowicz and Beckett." —Tyler Malone, contributing editor for Lit Hub and founding editor of The Scofield
"Surreal landscapes, automatic writing, and Kafka comparisons? Our interest is piqued by this book, yes indeed." —Vol. 1 Brooklyn
"A strange and wonderful novel. First and foremost, it is a page-turner, but in a way entirely different from what the phrase 'page-turner' usually evokes...page after page, you’ll find yourself smiling, if not laughing out loud, at the comic absurdity that occupies the narrator’s mind and writing." —Kalau Almony, Reading in Translation
"The circularity of his writing, and his repeated efforts to create a story, are, we begin to realise, themselves a form of therapy—an attempt to work through unexpressed suffering.?" —Tony Malone, Asymptote
“Jung… offers an audacious discourse on creativity, presenting readers with a labyrinth of ideas, images, suggestions, and observations all waiting and available to individual interpretation.” —Library Journal
"I have no...idea what this book is going to be like but I know it has piqued my curiosity. Jung Young Moon has been compared to Kafka and Beckett and I’m into that. Jason DeYoung described the book as “meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic”, and I’m into that, too. Modern Korean literature? Sure, into that, too. And I kind of want to know what a Vaseline Buddha is, so I’m gonna pick it up ASAP." —Susie Rodarme, Book Riot
"One of South Korea's more eccentric contemporary writers, Jung could almost be described as a cross between Beckett and Brautigan – his earlier writing was often extremely dark, but recently the balance has tipped towards lightness, of touch as much as of mood. It's all part of an aesthetic which prizes vagueness, randomness, digression rather than progression." —Deborah Smith, Verso Books
"A quite nicely wending stream, of consciousness and more..." —Michael Orthofer, The Complete Review
"If you want something vastly different to anything else currently out there, I strongly recommend Vaseline Buddha . . . Vaseline Buddha may be a weird novel, but it leaves you thinking in ways you might not have considered before." —The Sleepless Editor
"One achieves a kind of serenity when we delve into this book. I find that eccentrics like Jung are needed in literature." —Achim Stanislawski, SWR 2
"Truly meaningful literature. What makes this novel so fascinating is its permanent liminality and ambiguity: it is exactly the completely obvious which remains ultimately cryptic; it is exactly the linguistic hyper-precision which leads to confusion; it is exactly the “boring” stuff which becomes thrilling at another level; and it is exactly the humorous, ironic attitude of the author-narrator which proves his deep seriousness." —Jan Dirks
“Reality and fantasy, memories and dreams, Asia and Europe, all are equal partners in this literary meditation” —Christoph Hartner, Crown Newspaper (Germany)
“At its heart, Vaseline Buddha is a game of ideas, used to obviate the difficulty of expressing the difficulty of life...Jung removes the trappings of the ordinary novel to create something new, molding out of the gray matter of the mind a recognizable form.” —L.S Popovich
One day, when the night was giving way to dawn and everything was still immersed in darkness, I sat on a windowsill in the house I lived in, unable to sleep, thinking vaguely that I would write a story. I didn’t know at all where or what the story, if it could be called a story, would head toward, and neither did I want to know in advance, and for the time being, there was nothing that told me where or what. So for the time being, I was right to think that it could turn into a story, but it was possible that it wouldn’t turn into a story at all.
Anyhow, something happened a little before I began thinking such things, something so trivial that you could hardly say that anything had happened at all; I heard a very small sound coming from outside the kitchen window, and straining my ears for the sound for a moment, I thought it was the sound of raindrops, but it didn’t continue at regular intervals like the sound of raindrops. After a little while, I went to the bedroom windowsill and looked out the window through the curtains but it wasn’t raining, and with a certain thought in my mind, I went to the kitchen where the sound had come from, and hid myself behind a wall, and saw someone climbing up toward my bedroom window. It seemed that he was climbing up the gas pipes, and he looked like a moving shadow. It was an astonishing sight but I didn’t cry out because I felt as if I were dreaming. He was taking great care not to wake the person inside, whom he thought was sound asleep.
After a little while, I saw him trying to open the window, and I stuck my face out quietly so as not to startle him, but at that moment he saw my face and was so startled that he fell to the ground. I hadn’t had the slightest intention of startling him, so I felt terrible, as if I had made him fall even though I hadn’t, and above all, I wondered if he was all right, having fallen to the ground. He picked himself up at once, but was limping slightly, probably with a strained ankle, and went across the small yard and tried to climb over the wall which wasn’t so high, which didn’t look easy, either. I wished I could help him climb over the wall by giving him a leg-up. After several attempts, he finally clambered up the wall and disappeared into the darkness after throwing one last look in my direction, but I couldn’t tell if he looked at me with reproach as he disappeared into the darkness.