Tag Archives: Literature

Literary News

Item. Teakettle Mountain will be available for free starting in about two hours (Around 12AM Tuesday Pacific Time / Around 4PM in Krrrreeeya) until Friday at the same time. Snap up a copy before it’s too late!

Item. After several rejection letters, an agent I queried has requested more materials for Sorabol, which I’m currently attempting to publish via more traditional methods, after having already put it up on amazon as a kindle ebook. It’s still very possible that he’ll pass on it after taking some more time to look it over, but I think I’ve passed a sort of milestone in the authorial cursus honorum—getting a reply which is not a rejection form used for the slush pile.

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Who Is The Best Stylist?

Shakespeare writes as if the English language itself is writing: His tears run down his beard like winter’s drops from eaves of reeds. Tolstoy writes with the voice of the earth. I was first really hooked by the beginning of Sevastopol Stories, actually. Borges, in Spanish or English, is like bathing in a sunset.

Bruma de oro, el Occidente alumbra
la ventana. El asiduo manuscrito
aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.

And when Flaubert describes the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes, I don’t just see them, I am them. Madame Bovary c’est moi! Borges said that Joyce had written lines that were not unworthy of Shakespeare—

He watched her pour into the measure and thence into the jug rich white milk, not hers. Old shrunken paps. She poured again a measureful and a tilly. Old and secret she had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger. She praised the goodness of the milk, pouring it out. Crouching by a patient cow at daybreak in the lush field, a witch on her toadstool, her wrinkled fingers quick at the squirting dugs. They lowed about her whom they knew, dewsilky cattle. Silk of the kine and poor old woman, names given her in old times. A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning. To serve or to upbraid, whether he could not tell: but scorned to beg her favour.

Nabokov, too, can enchant even the staunchest philistines with the opening lines of Lolita, while Melville was quoted by Captain Picard!

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Joseph Conrad cannot not be mentioned—

In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

While you should also have a look at Homer in the original Greek, and read it aloud, because his poetry is actually music, and rhymes not just at the ends of lines, but within the lines themselves:

tis t’ ar sphōe theōn eridi xuneēke makhesthai;
Lētous kai Dios huios

(http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0133 (display the text in Latin transliteration, every word is clickable!, I can read Greek but I don’t understand it)).

While Ovid is more playful and classical than Charles Boer’s amazing Imagist translation—

: old woods, never cut, cave in middle,
low rock-sided arch, lots of sedge
& willow, spring streaming forth: hideout
of the Snake of Mars! gold-scaled & fire-eyed,
body bloats poison: three tongues buzz
through three tooth-rows

a bad day, Cadmians, to set foot there!

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The Ecstasy of Reading (Flaubert)


If you have ever felt, upon reading some comment or review that complains about too much description in a given book, or too many difficult words, a feeling of disgust—if you have ever suppressed an urge to roll your eyes when someone you know wonders about the point of fiction, or dismisses entire genres out of hand—then you must stop reading this blog post right now and go devour The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Don’t let the book’s religious veneer fool you. This is a story that Gustave Flaubert (an ardent and lifelong atheist, skeptic, and misanthrope) conceived as a child, worked on his entire life, and finally published as an old man, a book that is itself about the struggle to read books and to write them—a book that brings to life all of the distractions that tempt us from the divine act of consuming the written word, and turns them into the most beautiful and eloquent monsters, embodiments of what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance“, which Flaubert himself conquered and destroyed by holing himself up in the country for almost his entire life to write pages, cross them out, rewrite them, and then read them aloud by shouting them at the top of his lungs while pacing his study (his bearskin rug) endlessly back and forth. Though he wrote for his entire life, his oeuvre is relatively small, and The Temptation is a slim volume, clocking in at under two hundred pages, with few paragraphs exceeding three sentences.

It is a grotesque fantasy. It is gorgeous science fiction. At one point the devil grabs St. Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, and lifts him up above the solar system, and then the galaxy itself, in an attempt to convince him that his religion is false, and that his obsession with words is pointless. (The attempt fails). There is a bizarre cinematic acid trip quality to the text as well, as monsters transform themselves into beautiful women, as the shadowed arms of a cross grow horns, and then, as the darkness deepens—

…suddenly in the air above there appear and disappear successively—first, a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple; a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing.

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes—outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

This is a novel written as an impossible play, but it’s really a film script, a proto-Borgesian distillation of all of western science, art, and philosophy, into a single very intense shot glass. Flaubert said he read something like a hundred and fifty books in preparation for writing this one; what’s more likely is that this man simply read and then reread everything worth reading, and that, when combined with his remarkable imagination, perhaps the most powerful (certainly the most chimerical) of any writer, the book leaped from his brain fully-armored in its front and back covers.

In a way it’s unfortunate that Flaubert is mostly remembered for Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, two books he wrote with the purpose of reigning in and controlling his imagination. In St. Anthony (and also in Salammbo) that imagination is completely unbounded, though not out of control; the book has a definite structure, and moves toward the best ending imaginable, a cyclical finale which is almost the same as in Bouvard and Pecuchet as well as Joyce’s unreadable Finnegans Wake. Just as the devil is defeated, just as the greatest speech in defense of art for its own sake is delivered—

O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life. I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting. I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,—that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,—make my body writhe,—divide myself everywhere,—be in everything,—emanate with all the odours,—develop myself like the plants,—flow like water,—vibrate like sound,—shine like light,—assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,—be matter itself!

—Anthony resumes his devotions, and, one may imagine, opens his book just as at the beginning of the story, all while Temptation gathers its strength and prepares to assault him again.

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When You Say Simple, You Probably Mean Plain

Allegorical tales that involve animal characters have notable appeal for adults as well. Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” for example, is a masterpiece of political commentary that is arresting in its simplicity.

From the comments section of A Child’s Wild Kingdom. As soon as I read it I thought—simple? Orwell is simple? I don’t know, doesn’t Orwell seem, actually, to be kind of brilliantly complex? And doesn’t he just mask that complexicity in an attractively plain style?

And then from the chorus of dead people I’ve tucked into my brain, Nabokov—the master of concealing difficult and complex thoughts within a difficult and complex style—lashed out from his excellent Lectures on Russian Literature:

…But remember that ‘simplicity’ is buncombe. No major writer is simple. The Saturday Evening Post is simple. Journalese is simple. Upton Lewis is simple. Mom is simple. Digests are simple. Damnation is simple. But Tolstoys and Melvilles are not simple.”

Nor, indeed!, is any artist worth experiencing.

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Clashes Of The Literary Titans

Disputes between the literary gods would seem to be fairly rare, as these most talented personages are often gracious enough to overlook, at least in print, the perceived shortcomings of their fellow divinities. Literature is not a contest, Borges asserts; prizes, Werner Herzog adds, are for pigs and horses.

But there are two great disputes stretching across time which I wish to root out and address. The first concerns Vladimir Nabokov, who despised—or, according to one of my professors, affected to despise—Fyodor Dostoevsky. “[He] is not a great writer,” lectures Nabokov, “but a rather mediocre one—with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.” In other words, as Witold Gombrowicz wrote of a contemporary winner of the Mann Booker prize, he is an excellent mediocrity. Tolstoy himself added (several decades before) that he could not stick it out to finish The Brothers Karamazov, a book that functions as a doorstop and a chopping block as often as it does as a novel. At the same time there are numerous intelligent people of all stripes who claim the Big D. as their favorite novelist. How are we, then, to judge him?

While I believe such judgment is impossible, I do suspect that we can trace the origin of Nabokov’s negative feelings. He mentions in Lectures on Russian Literature that one of his own noble ancestors had a hand in imprisoning and then nearly executing Dostoevsky, and then adds, quite venomously, that his least-favorite Latin tutor, a certain German immigrant named Scheisseman, would slap young Vladimir across the face with a worn copy of The Brothers Karamazov, which is an exceedingly large and heavy book, every time Nabokov failed to properly decline a Latin noun. This could perhaps be the real explanation for Nabokov’s inveterate dislike of Dostoevsky and his point-blank refusal to even discuss one of Freud’s favorite novels.

The second dispute I wish to explore is that between V.S. Naipaul and Edward Said. Edward Said claimed that V.S. Naipaul was a colonialist stooge, while V.S. Naipaul claimed (in response) that his rival was “a strikingly successful dumbass”. This fight seems to have begun after the publishing of Among The Believers and India: A Wounded Civilization, two texts which (Said says) place the blame for all the malfeasance in Iran and India squarely on the shoulders of the natives, rather than the colonials. But a single secret event in the life of Edward Said, recently uncovered from among the private papers of one of his servants, would seem to shed some additional light on this clash.

After a long day lecturing on his love-hate relationship with Joseph Conrad at Harvard University, Edward Said returned home to his country mansion, tired and looking forward to his favorite dinner, which was tomato soup. Sitting down to table, his wife asked him how his day was, to which Said replied: “Not as good as this tomato soup’s going to be!” at which point one his many servants, a woman named Precious, began to ladle out the esteemed professor’s soup, but just as she was bending over, a book slipped out from her pocket and splashed in Edward Said’s bowl, soaking his face with the hot red liquid. He was furious, screaming and gesticulating as though in a silent movie—“Not because of the soup!” he wailed to his wife, while the servant apologized and wiped his face, “But because of the book!”

Precious had been reading A House For Mr. Biswas. She was fired on the spot by Said’s outstretched pointer finger (still dripping with soup), and henceforth all job applicants to the Said Mansion had to sign a contract with a single clause in large bold capitalized letters reading: I SWEAR I DO NOT LIKE V.S. NAIPAUL.

(nearly all of this is obviously untrue, and half of it is actually a rehash)

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Marguerite Yourcenar

I was into science fiction and fantasy novels when I was younger. This adoration of unknown and nonexistent worlds came about as a result of a rejection of the world I knew: when I was six my family moved from New York City to Maine, and I went from being a happy, popular, and talented student to an outcast and a failure. This was an overnight transformation. I was still the same person, but my surroundings were different.

I can remember very distinctly one of my first days at the bright shining public school in Maine where I walked into class and was immediately told to take a math quiz with the rest of the students even though I hadn’t studied the material (which was probably simple multiplication) and wasn’t even quite sure what the rules of the quiz were. It was all so different from back in the city, and the surprise took me so completely off guard that after exactly two minutes the little white plastic timer pinged and everyone was finished except for me. My paper was blank. It would take ten years for me to regain my natural interest in learning. My teachers complained in my report cards that I spent most of class staring out the window. No wonder. Everyone in those rooms, myself included, was convinced that I was an idiot, while back in New York City I had been the fastest reader in the class. I was all too sensitive, on top of that. When the other kids made fun of me I cried instead of taking it in stride, and that only encouraged them. It was no surprise, therefore, that I retreated from this world and began gravitating toward other planets. Before long I was drawing spaceships during storytime, the other kids snapping at me because the sound of my pencil dotting the paper—applying windows—was too loud. Words followed.

When the situation improved in high school and college I drifted away from the ridiculous books with dragons and spaceships on their covers and started moving toward something more realistic that was still very far away: classical literature, history books, and historical fiction. Here were strange new worlds that seemed so much more real than the movie novelizations and sequels and spinoffs I had been devouring for years. The cardboard sets were knocked down and fortresses of thousand year-old stone rose up in their places, glittering with soldiers, charred black by flames. Then a professional historian and a professional poet both recommended Marguerite Yourcenar when I was in college, a woman who coincidentally happened to live on the same island as me, in the same town as The School of Unhappiness, though she died a month after I was born.

I’ve read two of her books, Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss, and I’m currently re-reading the latter. In doing so I’ve discovered that this is the book I would write if I were capable of being ten times as witty, interesting, engaging, and poetic; ten times as intelligent; and ten times the researcher. Everywhere my eye falls there are words, sentences, paragraphs, floods of detail, worthy of being underlined and commented upon. In this book Yourcenar has made 16th century Europe far more real and believable than the modern world in the hands of lesser writers, who need only look outside their windows or inside their memories in order to research; one almost suspects her of traveling through time and reporting back on what she saw.

Here, in one example I’ve picked almost at random, with the patience of a scientist and the passion of an artist she describes the beginnings of Western science, when both science and art were still joined at the hip:

But, for the most part, Zeno would take off alone, at dawn, his notebooks in hand, going far into the back country, seeking whatever he might learn from direct contact with the nature of things. Thus for hours at a time he would examine stones, weighing them and studying their rough or polished contours, their coloration from rust or mold, all of which tell a tale and testify as to the metals which have composed them, the waters which long ago precipitated their substance, and the fires which have coagulated them into the shapes we see. Insects would often escape from beneath the stones, strange creatures from some animal inferno. Seated, perhaps, on a hummock he would gaze at the plains, undulating under gray skies, and swollen here and there by long ranges of sandy hills; he would dream then of times gone by when the sea had filled these great spaces where grain was now growing, and had left on them, in receding, the shape and imprint of waves. For everything suffers change, both the form of the world and what Nature produces in its motion, each moment of which takes centuries. Or again, his attention suddenly fixed and furtive like that of a poacher, he would turn to the beasts which run, fly, or crawl in the depths of the woods, to study exactly what traces they leave behind them, their rut and mating, their nourishment, their signals and their stratagems; and the way in which, when struck with a stick, they die. He was drawn by a certain sympathy toward the reptiles, calumniated as they are by man’s superstition or fear; the marveled at their cold, cautious, half-subterranean nature, enclosing in each of their eartbound coils an ancient, mineral-like wisdom.

And from theories as to the beginning of science (rooted in Lucretius) we move to a theory as to the beginning of literature (mirrored in Nabokov):

…we sort out our readers: the fools take us literally; other fools, thinking us more stupid than themselves, abandon us; those who stay with us make their way in the labyrinth of our books, learning to jump the obstacle, the lie, or to go around it. I should be greatly surprised if the same subterfuges are not to be found even in the most sacred texts. When read thus, every book has a hidden meaning.

To say nothing of hidden connections.

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At the university I teach the students to speak and write.

The conversation classes are the ESL equivalent of a factory line: the students face each other in two rows and drill common grammar forms into each other’s heads, switching places when they finish, the student at the front moving to the back and the rest of the students in the row moving down, while the students in the opposite row stay still. A large projection screen displays the sentence forms that the students have to practice, and alternating pictures ensure that the conversation always stays fresh.

Thanks to this method they spend almost the entirety of their forty minutes in class practicing and speaking rather than listening to a dull lecture they can’t understand. This design is my own, and though it can be boring I feel like it works fairly well. Many of the students choose to come back for more. I would also appreciate it if the tables were turned, and I was among them, learning Korean in this way and doing my best to get the language to stick in my brain. It gives them confidence, too. The more people you talk to, the better you feel about your linguistic abilities.

This is the final result of honing down months of lesson plans. In the beginning I lectured them, waited for what seemed like hours for them to answer questions (while half the class was yawning), and then I tried to get them to play games together, wasting reams of paper on unnecessary sheets that sometimes took hours to draw. At last I stood them up and had them move around the classroom, but thanks to their habitual shyness they had trouble finding partners, and I had to constantly run around and match them up and yell at them if they just stood by themselves and stared at the floor (which was often). Lining them up in rows ensures that they always have someone to talk to. Then there was also an issue of finding something for them to say. Left to themselves, they would repeat the exact same phrases over and over again for an hour. I went with my friends. It was fun because I liked it. I took a taxi. But by projecting pictures onto the wall and suggesting verbs for them to use on a whiteboard, I can keep them from falling into this incredible dull trap, changing the context each time they get a new partner, forcing them to use new words and patterns, and warning them if they keep repeating the exact same crap. This factory method works.

The writing classes are not born out of the same trial and error, but almost all of the materials and plans I use come from seasoned veterans who are also teaching the same courses. The most surprising thing about these classes is that they seem to be more about teaching people to think logically and critically, to support arguments with facts: most of the students who take them already have a strong grasp of how the English language functions. But so far as I understand it, when the typical Korean student enters college, he has not written a single paper on any subject, ever. They spend their time in high school preparing for multiple-choice exams, so when we first ask the students to write paragraphs, they give us bulleted lists. When we first ask them to support their arguments with evidence, they say things like, “It is good because everyone likes it.” There is little to no organization. They just vomit out whatever they think of. But largely thanks to the experience of the other professors—who each week pump out powerpoints and presentations going through specific genres of papers (opinion papers, comparison papers, biographical papers) sentence by sentence—by the time the vast majority of them leave these courses they’ve come to understand that pulling random shit out of their asses will only get them failing grades. Though this university may not have the best reputation in the country—a reputation not helped by the president getting caught exaggerating the job enrollment numbers of graduating students—almost every student I have encountered takes learning seriously, and I think that they really get something out of the time that they spend with me. I, at least, generally enjoy spending time with them. To lecture a class of sixteen college students, and to feel like you’re doing it well, is more satisfying than planting flowers and significantly more pleasant than washing dishes.

So much for the university. I’m working two jobs at the moment—as well as writing a trilogy of autobiographical novels and raising a toddler in a strange foreign country—and the second job involves visiting individual children, mostly in their homes, and either teaching them to read and write or encouraging them to expand on the impressive linguistic abilities they already possess.

Two of these kids are fairly illiterate. They were completely illiterate when we started at least six months ago, and through a great deal of patient work, for an hour a week, I’ve at least managed to get them to remember the names and (most of) the sounds of the alphabet. But in Korea it seems like kids learn to read by memorizing entire words rather than the sounds of letters and the ways in which they interact, which means that one student can read me an entire paper that she’s committed to memory but then can’t even sound out the words “How are you?” if I spontaneously write them down for her. This one is in kindergarten and easily distracted. The other may have a learning disability. His face is curiously impassive. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him smile or frown, and he speaks only in a very faint, toneless whisper, even in Korean. I’ve expressed concerns to my wife that their parents are not getting their money’s worth and that they should get themselves a Korean teacher to nail down the basics—because most Korean kids can read English fairly well by the time they finish elementary school here—but their parents are aware of my concerns and seem tor prefer that I keep on chipping away at their kids, who are progressing very, very slowly. One hour with them takes about as long as five or six hours spent writing for pleasure, or two hours in the university.

Some of the other kids I work with are brilliant. One of them just started middle school, and he’s a better writer and speaker than almost everyone in my college writing courses. Another is in kindergarten and seems to progress with a good strong leap every time I meet with him. Two boys I meet at the same time are badly mismatched: one is advanced but not fluent while the other is at a low intermediate level, and the fact that they’re friends means that they speak a lot of Korean together despite constantly yelling at them to stop. A pair of girls I work with is better matched—they’ve both spent a year outside of the country—and I honestly look forward to seeing them each week. In their company the time passes quickly, and I usually leave feeling better than when I first arrived. We’re reading Maus together, and I’m trying to get them to write me essays about the things that interest them, though their method of writing appears to involve reading brief Korean-language articles about non-Korean subjects (like the Pre-Raphaelites, which I asked one of these girls, who is a very talented artist, to write about) and then translating these articles into English. I may have to borrow some of the ideas from my college courses to ensure that these sessions together are helpful and productive.

The thing that really sucks about this second gig is that it’s always in the evening. On Monday and Tuesday I’m off at this time, so I get to hang out with my kid when he gets home from daycare, but for the next three days I have to spend each evening tramping around the city. Weekends go entirely to the toddler except for the few tense hours he spends napping. All in all I have maybe about twelve hours a week or less—including Saturday and Sunday—when I’m not working, preparing to work, or so exhausted that I can’t do anything. Barring a miracle, I can’t see this situation improving; I can only see it getting worse, though I still dream of the day I can quit these jobs and devote myself to books.

But altogether these two jobs amount to about thirty hours a week and allow my family to live in relative comfort—though even after a year we still run out of money in the week leading up to payday. I’m hoping that when my wife finishes her university education a year from now she’ll be able to find a decent job here in Korea (as a celebrity English teacher perhaps) or open her mind up a little more to becoming a nurse in America, where the average salary is almost $80,000 (she already has a nursing degree and several years of experience in three or four hospitals). She gets testy when we talk about this because she wants me to work too, and with my liberal arts education I’m basically unemployable outside of a restaurant, and not altogether eager to become a dental hygienist or a software engineer, which are some of the results I find when I type “best jobs America” into the google. I’m more open to chasing after a doctorate that would allow me to teach something more interesting than ESL, like history or philosophy or literature, though I doubt I’d be able to find a job doing so in the Western world; for some reason I suspect pursuing Asian History would help me get my foot in the door at some sort of thinktank. As you can tell, my plans are specific. I have thoughts about getting into politics and I still have hopes for my books. We’ll see.

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The Good, Or Bad, Book

I wrote this book because I wanted to tell the story of how I came to love living in Korea, and also out of a desire to preserve that country, as if in a jar of amber, as I found it in 2009, in the same way Herman Melville chose to write a novel rather than an encyclopedia about New England whaling in the middle of the nineteenth century. He did consider the latter option, and I have thought of pounding out a kind of Dictionary of Received Ideas (an assembly of cliches) for Korean Culture.

Because no work of art is ever finished—only given up—I can only say that I more-or-less finished this book several weeks ago, and have been waiting all this time to hear back from someone I know working for a famous agent, who has just informed me that the story isn’t cohesive or focused enough, that there are too many details, and that she had trouble connecting emotionally with the text. Ah, me. That is exactly what I was going for, and in this sense I have succeeded admirably in failing to write a sentimental book with ton of dialogue and an easy, Hollywood plot; to see how much Nabokov cared about plots, you can look at the first two sentences of Laughter In The Dark, which I will probably rip off one day despite never having read that book, or some of the whining about plots toward the end of his book on Gogol, or the entirety of Pale Fire, or even his memoir: Speak, Memory.

I can look at Flaubert and Borges and Joyce and Melville to justify this failure. Are these writers remembered for their stories, or their styles and details, their brilliance? The plots from all of Shakespeare’s plays were shamelessly copied from other sources. With Tolstoy it is different: even his most insignificant puppets breathe with a fully human life the moment your eyes stray over them, but in one of his breakout works, Sevastopol Stories, I think the details made him more famous than the plot. I try to imitate him regardless, but I think I have failed. Ridley Scott has a habit of making beautiful films with terrible stories and fine actors spouting endless drivel; Steven Spielberg is the one exception, as he is an artist who creates great stories and fills them with gorgeous emotions and images.

Here I try to prop myself up, but it is quite possible that this reviewer is correct, that the text is drowning in unnecessary detail, that I was too distant and dispassionate from the subject matter, that the people in the book are not alive, and that the plot goes nowhere.

One of two things, at any rate, is happening here: either I have failed to produce something good, or my tastes are different from everyone else, because this criticism about the story in my book has come from more than one respectable person. As I prepare myself to submit the fair copy to amazon and to the iBookstore, my heart pounding (seriously, I swear, pounding in my chest!), I brace myself for the failure I know to be coming: the paltry earnings, the lukewarm reviews (if any come at all), and the inevitable criticisms about too much detail, not enough plot or dialogue or character, too many racisms and generalizations, factual errors, boring digressions that go nowhere, and many more complaints that I cannot anticipate. People in Korea already know everything inside the book; people outside of Korea are not interested. Many of these criticisms are and will be completely valid. Few people, if any, will finish this text; none will recommend it, and although this is the first of three, each will quickly vanish into nothingness—but at least I will have taken the plunge, and published something, a dream I’ve had for many years!

My wife consoled me last night as I was getting over the disappointment, and declared that I was too advanced for my time. Maybe. Or, maybe not. I might just be a bad writer. She likes my writing but she hasn’t read the book; James Joyce had the same problem with Nora Barnacle.

Sometimes I’m afraid the pressure—arggh, too much pressure!—will turn me into the guy who made the Kony video:

He slept two hours in the first four days, producing a swirl of bizarre Twitter updates. He sent a link to “I Met the Walrus,” a short animated interview with John Lennon, urging followers to “start training your mind.” He sent a picture of his tattoo, TIMSHEL, a biblical word about man’s choice between good and evil. At one point he uploaded and commented on a digital photo of a text message from his mother. At another he compared his life to the mind-bending movieInception, “a dream inside a dream.”

On the eighth day of his strange, 21st-century vortex, he sent a final tweet—a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward”—and walked back into the real world. He took off his clothes and went to the corner of a busy intersection near his home in San Diego, where he repeatedly slapped the concrete with both palms and ranted about the devil. This too became a viral video.

The book will be out in less than a week. Anyone who is interested in reviewing the book and publishing something—whether positive or negative—on your respective blogs or zines or whatever, please post a comment here with a (possibly) spam-proof email address (writing at instead of @ and dot com instead of .com, for example) and I’ll get you a free copy to read immediately.

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Life And Work

A cool windy day as I dash this off outside in Banyeo, a distant suburb of Busan, an extension of the city’s vast cement tentacles which was nonexistent to me until about two weeks ago. Sometimes Napoleon fought with so many hundreds of thousands of soldiers that he would forget entire legions, hidden behind the hills on his flanks; it is impossible for the mind to grasp the endlessness of Busan, even if at the same time, for the most part, by walking one street in this city, you’ve walked them all. The array of restaurants, academies, convenience stores, and hospitals repeats itself in new patterns that always follow the same general tasteless theme of gaudy neon and plastic and concrete almost wherever you look. In Banyeo there is a little more greenery, and incredible numbers of high-rise apartment tenements stacked alongside one another like enormous dominos. Otherwise Banyeo is indistinguishable from the rest of Busan.

There is a new development in my life I want to talk about. I feel content with my work. I feel happy and satisfied when I leave my apartment and head out to earn money. The idea that this could happen never once occurred to me. There is actually a kind of thrill, now, in teaching or tutoring very small groups of students for astronomical sums of cash; I can feel my enthusiasm for the language infecting them, and this feeling from them re-infects me again, and bounds into them, and into me, back and forth, until the hours come to a quick close and I walk away with quite a bounce to my stride—smiling, happy, satisfied, content. I work for myself, and my family; our lives improve, and I begin to think of myself as actually having a career.

A few months ago I would have believed this feeling to be impossible. A philosopher once said that any work done for money was fundamentally evil, a sacrifice of your time to the gods of greed and base necessity; I believed that work was something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible so that I could return to the real work of imagining entire universes out of nothingness. And from looking at the jobs on my resume, you really can’t blame me for thinking that way; dish-washing and herding cats in a Korean public school are both not the most exemplary occupations, but most of my working adult life was spent that way. Teaching literature to college students and gardening were brief reliefs from all that drudgery.

And at the same time writing has hardly changed at all—it’s still just as much of a struggle as ever, with the same incredible mounting self-doubts, and the same total lack of payoff (beyond the reward of writing by itself). I can write for hours and hours and feel even more dissatisfied and disappointed than when I began; I never stop because I feel as if I’ve written enough, I only stop because I’m distracted by something else.

Little has changed, regarding writing. The titanic struggle to publish an ebook was fruitless thanks to unknown technical problems, and I’ve put off giving that gauntlet another shot for five or six weeks now, although I will eventually give it another go; I have spent an incredible portion of my life writing, and beyond some prize money I have not earned a single cent from doing so, and hardly a wink of recognition or even acknowledgment from anyone—and this blog hardly counts, I’m talking about my book! I write in a void. It is so the opposite of my “career” here, which I feel to be advancing by leaps and bounds month by month—writing, by contrast, is a stagnant plod through an endless field of tar.

Because so few people even recognize the fact that I am writing at all, and because the accolades of my handful of readers are so generous and at the same time so general, and because their criticism is more or less nonexistent (the greatest artists often being the subject of the most savage attacks), I have only dug myself deeper into that tar pit; my writerly self-doubt has assumed monstrous proportions, where everything I compose is utterly weak, meaningless, worthless, and beneath the gods whom I love to read; I do not know where to go, what to say, or how to say it; all this at the same time as my confidence as a teacher grows and grows, as my love for my nascent family (which I also thought I would never have) deepens.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing, but until now I had never thought I could live a happy and content life without struggling to compose literature.

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Continuing Business English Adventures

So it’s come to the point in my Business English class where I look upon my dozen fully-grown adult students as my own children; actually, secretly, I feel far more affection toward them than I ever did toward the little brats I had to shepherd in elementary school, who would try to stab each other’s eyes out with massive ungainly pairs of rusted steel scissors the moment I turned my back to marker in the date on the white board. When I looked at the faces of some of these kids all I saw was an overwhelming and equally inexplicable urge to stick their fingers as deeply inside my rectum as possible. Not so with the adults.

But in this office tower and even back in elementary school my feelings are mingled with very appropriate existential questions: What am I doing here? Don’t these Very Intelligent People realize I am a complete fool, and that my babbling, my walking, my waving hands and pleasantly shifting tones, are all just instances of the most shameless ventriloquism? That I am not a real teacher, not even a real man, but all pretense? How can they possibly dignify me with the title of seonsaegnim—drawn from the same Chinese characters as the more famous Japanese word, sensai, or master—? How can they pay so much for this unfunny ridiculousness? After all, if I am being remunerated through the roof for these services, the recruiter must be loping off into the darkness with bags full of ringing gold coins.

They were all smiles in this class, they laughed at every one of my stupid jokes, and although it was like pulling out teeth to get them to open their mouths, and although they refused to mingle with anyone outside of their social circles while we were playing a few icebreaker games in the beginning, I did not finish the textbook [which has obviously not been written or proofread by a native speaker, why, why, why, do these companies cut such basic corners?, how hard, how expensive, would it be, to get someone to proofread this??? such idiocy! such arrogance!], and now we’re two days behind, so I feel like quite the fraud, and quite the failure.

These good people may be wondering when we’re going to start learning Business English in our Business English Class.

There were strange, creepy comments from a few of them. One turtle-y fellow who wants to be CEO of the company declared (somewhat in private) that he liked a certain neighborhood in the city because it was filled with clubs. “So many girls”, he uttered, and these are not dance clubs he’s talking about, but brothels, and all I could think of is how uncomfortable this must be for the sole woman in this class, a very nice and thoroughly-pretty-in-the-Korean-sense (skinny as a mannequin, dolled up with more powder and whitening cream than Elizabeth I) lady who constantly attracts the gazes of this sausage fest. I don’t think she heard him. She was a little too busy conversing with the only man in the room who could even possibly be called attractive—yet another pleasant and well-spoken guy who likewise dolls himself up after the fashion of the Elizabethans.

Still, it is so thrilling to talk to them. I know they have a lot of trouble understanding me. I know that they all have questions which they are far too terrified to ask, even if I constantly ask them to ask, and tell them repeatedly that questions are my one true love, my lifeblood, the nectar after the hummingbird’s exile in a flowerless wilderness.

Nonetheless I am closer to attaining my dream of being a professor—one dream nearly opened among a whole gilded bestiary of caged, caterwauling fantasies. I am walking back and forth in front of adults, expounding, exclaiming, making wide Demosthenean gestures, fixing my gaze for lengthy moments on random victims—whose faces can only reply with the expression of the deer caught in the headlights.

I am still certainly a clown, a party entertainer, but I’m not jumping, dancing, or clapping my hands, to the most deranged music, in a prison full of inmates whom I myself want to jailbreak. It’s progress from Korean public school. If I ever attain that position-of-positions, to be shouting about Flaubert or Borges or Tolstoy to a theater packed with alternately rapt and dozing college students, I will certainly, hopefully, say, that this monkey business in an office tower overlooking a bay that hums with cargo ships was a step on the way to that exemplary destination.

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