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Same Bed Different Dreams coverThe engine that drives Ed Park’s Same Bed Different Dreams is the philosophy of a question: what is history? Is it a series of factual events organized into a sequence after-said-fact (and what is fact? And who decides on them?) or “a litany of trackable moments, the realm of machines” (p. 3)? Is it a method of interpretation? An impulse for truth, or Truth, “‘a message from a genius, ruined by the rain’” (p. 4)? A reckoning toward justice, a curative for erasure? Several of Park’s characters ponder this question, threading the novel through with its rhythmic pulse, until the reader cannot help but ponder it themselves, giving the reading experience an ethereal, metafictional quality. The text is not interested, necessarily, in what happens, but instead in questions of interpretation, narrative, and form, and it frequently comments on itself, either directly or through the characters.

“What’s it about?” a character asks, early in the novel, to which the response is, “It’s, ah, hard to say” (p. 20). Later in the novel, Park interiorizes the method of a science fiction novelist nicknamed “The Freak.” It communicates “a new frequency, as much in his bones as his ears. A message, not in words but pulses, pauses, intimations” (p. 83). Park indicates here and elsewhere a framework from which to consider his novel: in “pulses, pauses, intimations” that resist the staid “What’s it about?” question to consider the far more compelling and challenging question of epistemology itself.

What is history? “At least for now,” the novel suggests in its opening pages, “it’s a three-way standoff, a memory of rain, a cure for insomnia. These possibilities are duly entered into the system” (p. 5).

So what’s the novel about? Same Bed Different Dreams is a novel about Korea: its diasporic population, the Korean War, the country’s politics over the last century, and, through it all, the oppressing force of Western interventionist policies and the domestic social, political, and emotional strife wrought by that imperialist greed. It is “a novel in three novels,” each piece interlocking together to form a kind of mosaic that paints a picture of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG), a real-life political entity that existed as an exile regime in the early twentieth century; but Park pushes past history and extends its reign into the future, up to and including, possibly, the reader’s own present (p. 20).

The novel’s first section, subtitled “The Sins,” follows Soon Shen, a novelist and the closest thing Same Bed Different Dreams has to a protagonist. Shen is disaffected with his past writings’ failure to catapult him to literary fame, working instead at a bloated tech giant—GLOAT, a company that “claimed to foster connection and information, but instead led users to create echo chambers” (p. 32)—and attempting to balance his failed aspirations and soul-sucking job with his wife and daughter. At a literary gala event, he (fortuitously? serendipitously?) comes into possession of an unpublished manuscript titled Same Bed, Different Dreams, authored by the poignantly named and enigmatic Echo.

These chunks of manuscript comprise the second of the “novel in three novels,” subtitled “The Dreams.” At the risk of reduction, “The Dreams” section chronicles the rise and spread of the KPG, interweaving fact and (possibly?) fictional elements to form a tapestry of Korean history in the twentieth century, moving with an impressive scope and scale, covering everything from the McKinley assassination to Syngman Rhee’s rise to prominence to UFO sightings to Philip K. Dick and Thomas Wolfe to Friday the 13th and Kim Jong Un. Reading these sections (which form the bulk of the novel and are delivered in a numbered sequence of bite-size passages) has the feel of peering into the mind of a conspiracy theorist, one who is convinced that everything is connected, man. Because that’s the ultimate conceit of this section: that the majority of the world’s events of the twentieth century ripple out from Korean history, that the KPG has been functioning all along in the background. But again, the question Park poses is not “are these the facts” (p. 40)—Shen, while reading the manuscript, wrestles with this syncretic approach to fact and fiction in a text that “made me question which things were real and which invented”—but instead the much thornier philosophical conundrum: does it matter?

Finally, in the third “novel in three novels,” subheaded “2333,” we follow the life and influence of Parker Jotter, a former American pilot in the Korean war who later penned a series of science fiction novels, in those halcyon days of yore when mass market paperbacks clogged the spinner racks (so, the late 1950s). Here Park gives us insight into the sometimes inexplicable process of wordsmithing, depicting Jotter almost possessed by a force he terms “the Freak,” which is “short for frequency” (p. 71). Jotter hears the Freak “like that of the F-86 Sabre he’d flown over MiG Alley. Words in his head. Strange names. It felt scary at first, till the tumble of syllables resolved into a planet, a weapon, an alien species” (p. 71).

As in “The Dream,” Korea is the site of this section’s origination, the place where Jotter not only inherited his wartime trauma—but also where he glimpsed, perhaps, the UFO that inspired (cursed?) him to pick up a pen and write his science fiction stories. While the Jotter section felt the most intriguing to me as a reader, its also felt the least developed by Park. He traces Jotter’s legacy through some of his heirs and finally into video game culture and beyond, but the connecting threads to the KPG become tenuous, and we don’t spend enough time with Jotter as a character, let alone his heirs, to come to feel invested. One of my favorite of the novel’s chapters is “2333: The Exposition (1993),” which describes the deteriorated relationship between Jotter and his daughter. Here, Park slows down the narrative, which otherwise moves at a breathless pace, and allows his characters to open up and react to each other. During a phone call between Tina Jotter and her father, we get a palpable sense of longing between these characters, where everything else, all the weight and minutia of history, slips into the background to allow Jotter (and the reader) some vulnerability: “‘You’re so far away,’ he says, his voice all hazy. ‘I want to see my granddaughter. Heck, I want to see my daughter-daughter’” (p. 263). Tina Jotter can only lie and say they’ll visit soon, and it generates a sense of heartbreak that I wanted Park to spend more time with.

Nevertheless, for a novel that seemingly wants us to identify with the individual against the Grand Narrative of History, Park spends less time with his substantial characters than he does in charting out said Grand Narrative, and even the novel’s intimate moments are shot through with the paranoid quality that animates the entire novel. “Some sentences had an eerie quality,” Tina Jotter reflects, thinking of her father’s work, “as though a second meaning hovered in the white space, written with invisible ink” (p. 261). Same Bed Different Dreams struggles to balance the novel’s principal characters with that “second meaning” lurking in the background—the notion that, if you dig deep enough, and are willing to suspend belief enough, something profound will emerge.

But where Same Bed Different Dreams may shortchange its characters, its true quality, and perhaps Park’s greater interest, rests with its earnest desire to engage with the philosophical contradictions embedded in the traditional study of history. History is often conceived of as facts and dates cobbled together from primary source documents, and, since its acceptance into the social sciences, the study of history has garnered a veneer of objectivity. But facts do not tell themselves; they require a narrative, what philosopher of history Hayden White referred to as “emplotment” (Tropics of Discourse [1978], p. 83).

That is, history—referring to the interpretation, replication, and representation of the past—requires its storytelling aspect to be told. This calls into question how we come to know what we know, or, how we build our knowledge of the past. If the form of history requires a narrative, it traffics in a form that prioritizes an imposed structure and sequence onto otherwise plotless elements. White argues that a “historical narrative is thus necessarily a mixture of adequately and inadequately explained events, a congeries of established and inferred facts, at once a representation that is an interpretation and an interpretation that passes for an explanation of the whole process mirrored in the narrative” (Tropics of Discourse , p. 51). This is not to suggest that history is simply a matter of interpretation, but instead to recognize that the interpretive lens is present, and the veracity of any event or person from the past depends on how well the historian makes their case.

Park’s novel is embedded in these questions—in how Hollywood, history, and culture writ large have interpreted the nation of Korea. Park interrogates the cultural assumptions that undergird the conventional representations of the country, always pushing his reader to consider a different interpretation of the story (read: of the history). In “Dream Four,” for example, Park gives us the “secret history of the Korean War,” warning that “it skips around a lot,” putting traditional narrative events up against seemingly bizarre and unrelated diversions (p. 298). And taken together, Park’s practice of accretion becomes compelling. The experience turns from questions of “what is happening?” to “what connections am I being asked to make?”

For example, in this “secret history of the Korean War,” we’re treated to a brief aside into the life of Philip K. Dick, an author for whom “the real world turns out to be a simulacrum, or a hallucination, or a shimmering entertainment meant for someone else” (p. 339). Now, what does PKD have to do with the Korean War? Perhaps nothing, or, perhaps it informs how narratives are constructed, particularly the history of America, “the true, secret nature of American society—drab on the outside, garbled and haunted within” (p. 339). Park places a tremendous amount of trust in the reader, asking them to tie all of these conspiracy-board threads of yarn together and pin them down for an inevitable, though unexpected, conclusion—to become a participant, not unlike contributors to a subreddit thread, each member adding to the collective database, generating new knowledge toward a communal desire for truth.

In the novel’s final “Dream” sequence, the method of this kind of patchwork investigation is laid out, and provides a possible thesis for Park’s novel, or at the least a description of its praxis:

Fictional characters appear alongside actual figures from the past. The communal prose is sober even when delivering lies, so than an unsuspecting reader … would get the entirely wrong idea of what happened on this planet … the real and the invented merge. It can feel like those forbidden dreams in which all things connect. (pp. 509-510)

Whether or not those connections hold is up to the reader, but I was content to be asked by Park to partake in the dreaming, to help to realize “a dying dream, the only dream. South and North as One” (p. 255).

Matt currently teaches first-year composition and literature at Saint Louis University as a grad student. He lives in Fenton, Missouri, with his wife, Maggie, and their dog. You can follow him on Twitter @mattholder93.  
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