South Korean writer Jung Young Moon’s novel Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is a deceptively tiny volume: running to fewer than 170 pages, the English translation (by Yewon Jung) is presented in a trim size that could easily fit into any overcoat pocket. But this should not be taken as an indication that Jung’s novel is slight, or that it is an easy read. The writer – who has a degree in psychology – is not interested in conventional approaches to fiction and has no compunction about testing his reader’s sensibilities or pushing the boundaries of genre into areas they rarely venture.
Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is nominally a novel, though it doesn’t evince many of the properties most people would consider conventional to the form: there is no plot to speak of, no traditional conflict or cause-and-effect action, and though the setting – Texas – is readily recognizable, it is rendered strange and unfamiliar in its presentation.
Instead of a conventional story, Jung presents us with seven short sections of highly digressive musings on the part of a first-person narrator who superficially resembles the author. We follow the narrator’s meandering thoughts as they traverse subjects such as the career of outlaw legends Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the relative merits of beans in chili, the first cat to be sent into outer space in a rocket ship, and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway.
All these subjects are filtered through the narrator’s peculiar sensibility, which focuses on minutiae and trivialities that are not part of most conventional accounts: instead of recounting Bonnie and Clyde’s history of bank robbery, the narrator focuses on their affinity for hot chocolate, and when he describes Jack Ruby murdering Lee Harvey Oswald, he is most concerned about the detail – perhaps apocryphal – that Ruby brought his dogs along with him in the car prior to the shooting.
The narrative does not constitute a straightforward stream of consciousness, but rather what the narrator describes as “a mixture of the stream of consciousness technique, the paralysis of consciousness technique, and the derangement of consciousness technique” in the effort to create “a novel that even a passing dog would laugh at.”
And parts of the short novel, surface weirdness notwithstanding, are indeed very funny. The narrator marvels at the fact that Texas boasts the headquarters of “the (International) Chili Appreciation Society” and remarks that among his other achievements, Benjamin Franklin introduced tofu to the U.S. He suggests that Karl Marx once considered moving to Texas and imagines the father of communism in his room in London, doodling caricatures of himself in a cowboy hat. And he narrates a surreal story about a shape-shifting cat that is interrupted by the appearance of the titular samurai – from Kurosawa’s most famous film – who do pitched battle not with a common enemy, but with each other.
None of this follows conventions of well-made fiction, with its arcs and developing drama that do not resemble the randomness or messiness of real life. Jung’s suspicion of traditional notions of plot is concretized in a kind of prose poem that lists the various types of plots the narrator would find allowable in a novel: “a flotsam plot; a deranged plot; a plot that does nothing but sleep; a plot that’s usually in an unconscious state but that likes lightning, and wakes up whenever lightning strikes; a plot that can be buried deep or shallow in earth, but cannot be dug up.”
As with plot, so too with characters and conventional ideas of dramatic conflict, which the narrator avows he can no longer write: “I’d reached a point of skepticism where I really was not sure if a fiction writer should create problems and conflicts among fictional characters when the world itself was rife with problems (I hoped that at least in the fictions I wrote nothing bad would happen to anyone, and that the characters wouldn’t undergo changes through certain events or something), but I didn’t know what that had to do with the seven samurai making an appearance in my mind.”
What we get in the novel, then, is not so much a story as a kind of miniature dreamscape over which images and figures – historical and invented, concrete and frankly surreal – are painted in an expressionistic manner that evokes alternately laughter, confusion, and surprise. Despite its brevity, this is not a novel that can be read quickly or cursorily, and even on a second or third encounter a reader is liable to find places in it that actively resist interpretation or the imposition of fixed meaning. Very much like life itself.