Tuesday, January 30, 2024

What is history?

What is history? So it is asked, repeatedly and pointedly, in Same Bed Different Dreams (no comma), by Ed Park, a readably maximalist metafictional alternate "history" of Korea positing that the Provisional Government established during Japan's occupation of Korea operates to this day, its ultimate aim being a unified Korea. Fact, perception, memory, imagination. Drawing connections and filling in the blanks.

Pop quiz (in the guise of mandatory corporate security training):

After Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea was divided into North and South across the 38th parallel

A. by someone in the U.S. State Department who had to find a map in National Geographic because he wasn't exactly sure where Korea was.

B. and the animosity between the Soviet-backed North and U.S.-backed South led to the Korean War — the "Forgotten War."

C. where no border existed before.

D. or was it?!

I read most of this book two-handedly, in one fist my ereader, in the other my phone, ready to check names and events against popularly recorded history (and I really messed up my algorithms in the process). The problem with reading alternate history is knowing enough actual history to be able to discern the deviations, and to be honest, what little knowledge I have about Korea is limited to K-pop and M*A*S*H

"It's said that the Korean Provisional Government is more a state of mind than an actual governing body." Park reveals foundational members, secret members, anticipatory members, and undercover operatives of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG), among them Isabella Bird, Leon Czolgosz (assassin of President McKinley), poet Yi Sang, Harold Sakata (who portrayed Bond villain Oddjob), Douglas MacArthur, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Ronald Reagan, Younghill Kang, Thomas Wolfe, Maxwell Perkins, Richard E. Kim, and Philip Roth.

The history of the KPG is presented in the form of a manuscript titled Same Bed, Different Dreams (with a translator's note about deleting the comma), read by writer Soon Sheen, whose day job, much like mine, mostly consists of navigating (sometimes literally) a techmegacorp, and trying to figure out what the hell their job actually consists of.

Park's Same Bed also asks (literally), "What is a book?" Concerning Syngman Rhee's The Spirit of Independence, one of the secret bibles of the KPG,

Few readers can remember where all the chapters are, which means the book is often encountered out of order. More important than the book's contents is the fact of its existence: that it has been composed in extremis, cut up, and concealed.

This novel is a celebration of fiction, intertextuality, and, in a roundabout way, good editing. "The problem with being a good copy editor is that the world will always be in error."

One main narrative thread concerns the sci-fi series 2333 (so named either to honour the fictional author's wife's birthdate, or to call out the legendary founding of Korea in 2333 bc; personally, I can't help but think of 2666; and apparently in Chinese it's the equivalent of lmao), pulp fiction space adventures written by a PKD-admiring Korean War vet, and serving as inspiration for a couple of game developers, with the resulting software folded into the algorithms of the aforementioned techmegacorp.

This novel bounces from the tragic (suspicious?) death of Kim Jong Il's little brother at the age of about 4 to the circumstances of the destruction in 1983 of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by Soviet Air Forces.

Despite its concern with Korea, it's dense with Americana. It follows Betsy Palmer (who eventually starred in Friday the 13th, which has an imagined backstory rooted in the Korean War and its aimless violence can be seen as an allegory of American intervention; also one of Kim Jong Il's favourite movies). It trails Ronald Reagan (who ratted out communists and eventually became president). It documents their encounters on gameshow I've Got a Secret. It plays JFA on a loop (that's punk band Jodie Foster's Army, whose name was inspired by John Hinkley Jr, who attempted to assassinate Reagan).

(Palmer also dated James Dean, regarding whom we have this wonderful sentence: "Half of him is falling apart at the seams while the other half insists there are no seams.")

Also hockey lore. One short chapter division is named after my hometown, being where Tim Horton crashed and died (and I've been craving a cruller since reading those pages). Because of course Same Bed covers the history of the Buffalo Sabres, whose very existence is tied to the KPG, evidenced through their 1974 11th-round draft pick — "nonexistent" Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas (why are they called the "sabres" anyway?), and culminating in Park's dramatization of the fog game, featuring a bat swooping down from the arena rafters. Apparently, you can't make this stuff up.

I am inspired to see Friday the 13th, a film I didn't think I'd ever watch, even though Same Bed has given away the entire plot and ending. 

Yura insists that the film is as deep and beautiful and disquieting as anything he's seen. That it's a dream masquerading as the ultimate horror film. A poem of grief. 

It was early pages when I gave up on grasping the intricacies of occupational and international politics, and simply gave myself over to this wild ride, a distorted fun-house version of history laden with conspiracy. Park performs pure magic.

To do
Procure a copy of Dictee.
Watch Friday the 13th.