Review of Vaseline Buddha by Young-moon Jung

What a fascinating read!
I’m going to unpack it, but there’s no way to properly convey the captivating reading experience this author provided me. Undergo the trial of reading it. It’s well worth your time. Dalkey missed their chance at publishing this, and I’m grateful to Deep Vellum for putting it out. I’ll have to get the other 3 books in English by Jung now.

At first, you’ll likely be confused. What you are observing in the initial pages is the discovery of the source of inspiration. Within the limitless capacity of the human mind to create, recreate and abuse reality, the proliferation ideas with hardly an impetus but the mind’s own insatiable curiosity takes place in a realm we can pass through regularly, but so rarely do we appreciate it.

The first forty pages are a thesis statement, used to justify the literary excesses of the rest of the book.

Methods of making the world disappear are known to most of us. Sustaining the hypnotic separation from the moment is how we often cope with the stress of daily life. At its heart, Vaseline Buddha is a game of ideas, used to obviate the difficulty of expressing the difficulty of life.

You’ll notice the author cutting himself off whenever he verges on narrative. Like Pessoa, the narrator travels the world in his mind while sitting at home. The flexibility of time when recounting tales allows for ambiguity in the structure and content of the retellings. The uncertainty of time passing in memories facilitates the analysis by the author’s mouthpiece, whose uncompromising terms of surrender to the compulsion to create manifest in a charming landslide of visions and revisions. He recounts buried tidbits from random encounters and reminiscences, meditation and dreams, including fainting goats, Madagascan baobab trees, ornamental false eyes, bagpipes, the surprising difference between saffrons and crocuses, and an increasing number of tangential morsels.

Our unnamed narrator can be elegant when he wants to be, but he patently avoids elegance most of the time. I was entranced after 40 pages. I enjoyed it far more than my readings of Bernhard. (I have not yet succeeded in finishing a Bernhard novel, but this was a breeze to read.) I could feel Jung taking control of the center in my mind responsible for my imagination with his pointed repetition. It took a while for the novel to win me over, but once it did, I was thoroughly won over. The rhythmic precision as it navigates the vagueness of the vagrant mind was enchanting, its vagaries, its vacancy, and its vaseline, was exquisite. The narrator is not a fan of his native country or language. Though Korea is never mentioned, he is self-described as a foreigner from the East.

On the surface, this is a ceaseless internal monologue. “Maybe” and “I thought” is the compulsive refrain. These words are a continued questioning of the subject and perceptual search for a subject. The reference to the writing of the book within the book betrays a lack of a plan. The improvisation is clear, and the narrator’s deception only compounds as he utilizes his capacity to visualize.

Shades of Kafka and Beckett make their way into the text. The river of memory flows counter to the stream of reality, to the images it produces in the mind. Similar to Beckett’s subtraction of elements of narrative, Jung removes the trappings of the ordinary novel to create something new, molding out of the gray matter of the mind a recognizable form.

I found it far more tangible and readable, than Ellmann’s Ducks… but it is in the same vein. It is far more entertaining, in my opinion, for one thing, though opinions will diverge on that point.

The observation of things being done without rhyme or reason, commenting on those things without purpose, and the self-analysis are all call backs to classic existential philosophy. I admit to being weak in the fields of psychology, Freud, mysticism, and philosophy, but even I noticed some parallels. The free associative filling of a frightening absence, the obscenity of the blank page, and the obscurity of our mind’s own schemata are all enumerated with great aplomb.

Useless speculation on and analysis of an environment which, by definition, defies logic, characterizes a human’s propensity to interpret its relationship to its surroundings. The affliction of sentience in the face of everyday life is combated through the self-imposed mesmerism of fantasy. The attachment to a perceived significance of reality can sometimes get in the way.

Somehow, I was able to process these concepts without being distracted by my own cognition. The repetitive musical rhythm of Jung’s prose lulled me into a false sense of security. It is somehow reminiscent of Tao Lin in the puzzling conscientious usage of dissonant language patterns.

The narrator assigns arbitrary significance to observations, he contradicts his own accounts through rambling explanations and questions the veracity of his memories. By revealing the obscurity of information, his thoughts become more real than reality. Jung brings his translator sensibilities to his fiction, in that his awareness of the inadequacy of words informs his narrator’s choices. The archetypal storyteller this character becomes accuses himself of fabrication, while trying to express the inexpressible, and understand his compulsion to do so.

“There are things in life that can be revealed by shedding darkness, not light, on them.” he says.
Humanity’s animalistic tendency toward constant hunger and ceaseless ambition, the parable of the kea eating the sheep’s kidneys, and the fabulous allegories inserted throughout the book call attention to the fearsome, defiant quality of silence. Simple language, unadorned narration, his comfort in Surrealism, the unrealistic qualities of the physical world, all while making an effort to unsee the troubling inevitability of Death and its infinite incarnations. Surrealism becomes reality “within reality,” for our hero, who is locked inside his own head, but far more free than the close-minded men in the streets.

Wallowing in contradictions and defining his own existence in the rejection of reality, in the de-emphasis of realism, he experiences the numbness caused by experience and the dullness of remembrance, desensitized to reality, but hyper aware of his imagination.

Does questioning his own behavior excuse the unexplainable behaviors he displays, or are they just peculiar fantasies, observing his body from a distance, the balm of literary invention, and the comfort fantasy brings within chaos? The countless stories which make up a human being take on life as we give them form. Yet, how is it possible that the organization of certain words animates the formlessness within us? A “story about the process of writing a story,” is the jumping-off point for a deconstructed travelogue, backtracking a life held captive by wandering thoughts. It is, in a sense, Pessoa’s narrator revived.

The sea of narrative and the infinite, arbitrary meaning ascribed to the creatures within it, is the origin of much of the world’s literature, but the beliefs that derive from this oceanic creativity often seep into historical interpretation and inform our lives. The private ritual of expressing inner thoughts, or journaling, can birth new perspectives. The novel is an amusement at bottom, much like nonfiction, while serving as a vehicle of understanding environments, both farcical and accurate. Whether or not the places and people described are real is a mere technicality. Literature is both a game and an antidote.

Writing words down gives them power. We realize this. Ideas give birth to other ideas. That much is clear. The proliferation of words can go on forever, the mind is a breeding ground. But when is it appropriate to draw the line? When is it finally time to stop making stuff up?

The temptation of experimentation is inherent in the human spirit. It allows us to progress, through stages toward greater levels of awareness and compassion. In this way language bears the responsibility to communicate relevance, and has its limitations. There is an immeasurable disconnect between words and thought. With deceptive intelligence Jung plays with these concepts, and even touches on different aphasias and their effects on meaning, through automatic writing, and uses his arguments to bolster his antipathy toward straightforward narrative.

Realism is full of plotholes, he claims, and communication through abstraction, allows us to ascribe meaning to the chaos, which is the “greatest constituent of life.”

The narrative of life is contrived. Life is fragmentary. The removal of traditional story elements, the removal of substance, and the prevention of the development of story chokes out the mind’s ability to surrender to fantasy. The author is hiding behind the narration and questioning his own authorship. He becomes author as arbiter, and then lets his ideas degenerate into narrative, while sustaining the cognitive dissonance of aborted literary scenarios.

Finally, death and doubt personified make appearances throughout as the abstraction of concepts, the breaking down of the inevitable abstractions of words counteract the flow of time, until the author’s motifs are pointed out by the narrator and begin to leak into the narrator’s personality.

Dodging existentialist quandaries at every turn, haunted by a failure to communicate concepts, the main character drowns in the bottomless well of his own psyche. Propelled by poisonous banality, while imagining the sentiments of great men facing death and the conscious thoughts of animals placed in bizarre situations, is a way of constructing mental labyrinths for himself, all to avoid the inevitable conclusion that reality is an illusion.

Despite his logically invalidated writing, intentionally including mistakes and second-guessing everything, his metaphysical journey in the second half of the book, comprised of memories contorted through creative interpretation, blurring the border between truth and fiction, his artificial confessions, false details inserted seemingly without motive, the deviation, interpolation, reiteration, eternal returns, resistance, entropy, detours, endless insertion of random anecdotes which are far more interesting than the author’s thoughts, all serve to anchor him as the embodiment of the banality he despises.

Sprinkled with romantic wishful thinking, indulgence in playful fantasy, entertaining surrealist set-pieces, insignificant facts, cameos by Napoleon, van Gogh, Chirico, Nietszche, Vermeer, Chekhov, Dali, and others, the intentional sloppiness of the sentences, the clumsy recountings, and wacky outrageous humor, all add up to a riveting conglomeration. Add to this the subtle inclusion of the absurdity of war, the absurdity of human behavior in contrast to the exactitude of certain historical details that cast light on the folly of Man through the ages, and display how “treating ideas as objects and objects as ideas,” can invade every sector of our lives.

The difference between poetry and fiction, Nature contemplating itself, how to seduce a cow, the comparison of Buddhist monks to hippies, superstition, alien invasion, Venice, Paris and the Amazon, the initial spark and germination of stories, the virtue of self-reliance, loneliness, desensitization and human agency, and a lot more is to be found in Vaseline Buddha. It is once and for all a demonstration of free will and a masterpiece masquerading as a free associative rant.

Read it.

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