Jung Young Moon (trans. from the Korean by Yewon Jung)
Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River
Deep Vellum Publishing
Paperback, 978-1-9419-2085-5, 168 pgs., $14.95
December 10, 2019
“It’s winter now, and I’m in Texas, and I’m writing this, a story about Texas, but at the same time, a story that deviates from being a story about Texas, a story that does, indeed, go back to being a story about Texas, something that I’m writing in the name of a novel but something that is perhaps unnamable.”
In the fall of 2017, knowing nothing of Texas except “a notorious Texas” (Oswald, Bonnie and Clyde, No Country for Old Men), Jung Young Moon arrives for a writer’s residency at 100 West Corsicana. After he arrives in that small East Texas town, Moon sets out to learn what makes a “true Texan.” His quest involves the eternal debate about whether chili with beans is chili, longhorn cattle, the seasonal appropriateness of different cowboy hats, two-stepping, the inordinate number of wild turkeys, cowboy churches, and ordering a soda when every soda is a “Coke.”
Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is the latest novel (?) from award-winning Korean writer and translator Jung Young Moon. In his trademark stream-of-consciousness style, Moon admirably grapples with himself and the peculiarities and paradoxes of twenty-first-century Texas, while questioning what has meaning and what doesn’t, who gets to decide, and the nature of the novel as a literary form.
This writer doesn’t like rules and is baffled by conformity, gripped by a profound melancholy. “[He’d] reached the point of skepticism where [he] really was not sure if a novelist should create problems and conflicts among fictional characters when the world itself was rife with problems.” Accordingly, the problems and conflicts of Seven Samurai are internal, except for the chili. The melancholy is such that I was startled when Moon visits a farm and notes “a very cute donkey.”
Moon crafts page-long sentences that do not meander; his musing is focused—hats off to translator Yewon Jung. Moon also exhibits a joy in words: he “always wanted to say something good if possible about gooseberries,” simply because the words “goose” and “berry” were conjoined. His repetition of certain words lends a meter to his prose, as if he might be a poet. A particularly moving passage involves an old woman, the proprietor of an antiques storefront in Corsicana, who seems to Moon to be even older than her goods, as if “it would be all right to put your hands together and make a wish while looking at the woman.”
While Moon claims not to feel an interest in much of anything, he seems interested in everything, observing details which inspire mental leaps and connections. In the farmhouse, there was “a wolfskin with the head intact laid out flat on a single bed which looked either like an altar on which a wolf had been offered as a sacrifice, or like an altar exclusively for worshiping wolves.” Moon has a droll, dry wit that reminds me of Steven Wright and had me chuckling aloud. Thinking about thinking, he is astonished by what goes on in other people’s minds: Why did Jack Ruby bring his dogs along on his mission to shoot Oswald?
In the end, Moon gains an appreciation for oak trees and acorns but declines to take a position on the chili controversy. Seven Samurai ends on a hopeful note.
“Perhaps [he] could throw many things into the puddle and see how some things sank and others floated and accept that some things sank … and others floated … and that a mind that couldn’t be put at ease, no matter what, was as necessary as any other kind of mind.”
Jung Young Moon, born in 1965, is an award-winning Korean writer and translator. A graduate of Seoul National University with a degree in psychology, Jung is also an alum of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and has been a resident at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Korean Study and the 100 West Corsicana Artists’ & Writers’ Residency in Texas, which inspired his latest novel, Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River. Deep Vellum published his novel Vaseline Buddha in 2016 and will publish his linked novella trilogy, Arriving in a Thick Fog, in 2020.
Yewon Jung was born in Seoul and moved to the US at the age of twelve. 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. Her translations include Jung Young Moon’s Vaseline Buddha (Deep Vellum, 2015) and Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows (Tilted Axis, 2016).