Korean Short Stories
Kim Junghyuk The Glass Shield 유리방패 Translated by Jae Won Jung
Information This work was previously published in New Writing from Korea . Please contact the LTI Korea Library. email@example.com
About Kim Junghyuk Characters with unusual personalities or rare jobs also appear in his stories: a “conceptual inventor” who confines himself underground and invents useless concepts; a man who wanders in search of “Banana, Inc.” with a rough map left behind by a friend who committed suicide; a map surveyor who searches for his direction in life, using a wooden Eskimo map. While writing about trivial objects, unusual people, and unseen music, Kim Junghyuk has established himself as a writer who awakens readers to the warmth and importance of analog sensibilities in a digital age. Kim's stories are considered on the outer fringe of Korean literature, and feature a nearly maniacal focus on the objects of his work. This focus on objects instead of characters is extremely unusual in Korean fiction. Kim Jung-hyuk always attempts to discover new approaches that no one else has delved into.
LTI Korea eLibrary: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/99
The Glass Shield We were sitting in a subway train disentangling a spool of knotted thread. It's a simple process. All you do is hold one end of the thread as you loosen the knots one by one. If you slip the end of the thread through each loop you've loosened up, the knots come easily undone. We gathered our feelings in our fingertips while listening to the rhythm of the rattling subway car. Our work went smoothly because the subway car was nearly empty. From time to time someone would eye us suspiciously, but there was absolutely no cause for suspicion. You can't blow up the subway with thread, nor can you set the place on fire or kill someone with it. Thread is just thread. It was more likely that people would cheer us on with a wave as we disentangled the thread than try to stop us from doing it. As we worked we laid the untangled thread across the seats of the subway car. The more we disentangled, the wider the space between us grew. The heaps of blue and red thread on the green seats kept getting larger. "What the hell? This isn't hard at all. Why couldn't we do this before?" M asked, holding a tangle of blue thread, which had been reduced to half its original size. "Isn't that just like us? That's our specialty, screwing things up at the crucial moment." I answered him in a weak voice while loosening a knot in the red thread. Two hours ago, M and I had been in the middle of our thirtieth job interview. 'That's enough. You can go now,' the interviewer had said, exactly as we had expected. "You should've added that to your CV. 'Screwing up at the crucial moment.' They might've taken you on out of pity." "And under 'other interests' you should've written, 'Making a mockery of your friends.'" We went back and forth like this with our eyes fixed on the spools of thread the whole time. Our morning had been terrible and so far the new year had been pretty much a waste of time. We fell silent and became absorbed in the task of unraveling thread again. "Is this a loop line?" "I think so." "That explains why I'm getting dizzy." "The train's got nothing to do with it. You've just been staring at thread too long. Let's take a break."
The aboveground scenery sprang into view the instant we lifted our eyes to look out the window. The rattling subway train had emerged from the tunnel as if it had been waiting for us to take our eyes off the spools of thread. Squat buildings and countless signs fanned out around us in the bright light of day like a vast collage. Rather than a single seamless image, it looked like something someone had cobbled together. We watched and waited for the train to go underground again. The taut electric line running above the train controlled our path and the subway continued on above ground. Since M and I were sitting in the last car, we could see the front of the train tightly winding the bend ahead if we craned our necks and brought our faces close to the glass. The sight really gave you the sense of being on a loop. After making two stops the train lurched ahead and the view vanished as the window became a mirror. Where the scenery had been we saw ourselves. We returned to the tangled threads. My face grew hot when I thought of how the interviewers had laughed at us. M and I had always applied for the same jobs. A big part of it had to do with the fact that we wanted to work for the same company, but you couldn't deny that we had become so inseparable that the very idea of going through the hiring process alone seemed unthinkable. We were like the two sides of the same coin or the front and back of the same person. If M disappeared I'd feel like a sheet of onion skin paper; I wouldn't even be able to stand up on my own. M probably felt the same way about me. Together, we had submitted applications to a total of 30 different companies. Our success rate to date was zero percent. We hadn't gotten a single job offer, still the thought of applying on my own had never occurred to me. We always showed up for interviews together. Some recruiters asked if we were a gay couple. Some responded by telling us they were hiring only one new employee. We would stubbornly insist to whoever was in charge that only through a joint interview would we be able to show them our true selves. There were a few companies that would not grant our request, but for the most part they just told us to do as we pleased. Our plan had been to challenge the system by trying out dynamic new approaches to interviewing. We aspired to 'rewrite the history of the job interview' but the recruiters met us with indifference. We fancied ourselves a duo with a fresh repertoire, who would capture their hearts, but in most cases the recruiters kicked us out well before our allotted time was up. We could never figure out why. Once, as we were being kicked out,
we'd asked the lead interviewer to explain why. 'Why don't you try auditioning for one of those comedy shows on TV' he said while shifting his gaze between us, then shoved us out the door. "At least he thinks we're funny," M had said, laughing. We tried putting on a skit during an interview with a web development firm. The panel of interviewers didn't laugh, not even once. We staged a clumsy magic show for an animation company, but the handkerchief M had prepared as a prop caught fire and triggered the emergency sprinklers in the ceiling. At a company that specialized in English conversation workbooks, we pretended we were hawking their products on the subway. This bit got our best response ever. The garbled English we'd used to pitch their books made no sense whatsoever, and one of the interviewers cracked up so badly that he literally fell out of his chair. "The thing is," the lead interviewer said, after dinging us, "the course materials we publish are much better than the kind of crap that gets sold on the subway". We were guilty of skipping the first step of interview preparation: Read up on the company. We had prepared passionately for that interview, but the only thing we knew about the company was that it sold English education products; we never even thought about the quality of the books they were selling. The conversation we'd had in preparation for that day's interview had been thorough in its own way. During dinner the night before we'd read all the materials we'd downloaded from the company website. They designed computer games and were looking for people to develop and test new products. The list of qualifications for the job in question stated, 'Has basic programming ability, overflowing with ideas, gifted with an extraordinary imagination, feels confident about playing all kinds of computer games, finishes every game he begins.' Though we didn't meet any of these requirements, we did like the idea of playing computer games everyday. "Wouldn't you say we're above average in the imagination department?" M asked. "Yeah," I said. "We also have some pretty good ideas." We had no way of knowing whether our imagination was the kind the company had in mind, but of all the companies we had applied to work for, this place seemed best suited to our abilities. "So how do we show them how imaginative we are? Should we give the magic show another try?" "Forget it. We don't want to burn down their building. I say we hit them where they least
expect it. We prepare an interview that has nothing to do with being imaginative. We might score big that way. By taking an approach completely different from what everyone else is doing." "How?" "What's the quality most lacking in new employees these days?" "We went over this the other day. Perseverance and loyalty." "That's right. We'll show them perseverance. Because the most important thing when you're testing a computer game is perseverance, right?" "How do we show them something like that? Do we try to pull a car with our teeth or something? Or stand barefoot on hot coals for ten minutes?" That led us to the idea of untying knotted thread during the interview. We didn't need to practice. Unraveling thread isn't something that you get better at with practice. It only gets done with tenacity and perseverance. We prepared a few lines of dialogue and went to bed early. "We'll begin with a demonstration in lieu of an introduction. We think that testing a computer game is much like the task of disentangling a knotty ball of thread one step at a time. We'll show that if you patiently proceed step-by-step you can disentangle the whole thing." It sounded cool even to me. The panel of interviewers seemed to be responding positively as well. When we pulled hanks of blue and red thread from a shopping bag we even heard a low sigh of approval from somewhere in the room. But there was a problem. We had tangled up the thread too much in the waiting room, and the spool of thread we'd chosen was way too big in any case. A minute hadn't passed before sweat began to bead on our foreheads. The situation hadn't gotten any better after three minutes. After five minutes our suits were soaked with sweat. If anything the thread had grown even more tangled thanks to our sweaty palms. About thirty centimeters was all we'd managed to disentangle in five minutes. Instead of loosening the knots, M kept yanking on them. At that point I sighed and M followed suit by quietly murmuring, "Shootâ€Ś" That brought it all to an end. "That's enough, you can stop now. It was a great idea, but the two of you seem to lack perseverance. Practice untying the thread some more and try us again next time." Some of the panel members were laughing. I wanted to chuck the spool of thread at
them, but they hadn't done anything wrong. When we left the interview one of the candidates in the waiting room noticed the sweat running down our faces and asked, "What kind of questions did they ask you in there to make you sweat like this?" I wanted to punch him in the face, but he hadn't done anything wrong either. It was us. We were the problem. "If you hadn't sighed first-" "So you're saying this is all my fault?" "No, no. What I'm saying is that I would've been the one to sigh." "If you had sighed first, I probably would've said, 'Shit.'" This is how our relationship went, though there wasn't a thing we had tried together that we hadn't failed at. We got on one of the subway lines that always has good airconditioning. We'd been sweating profusely and it was a very hot day. Once we had cooled off the thought occurred to us that it might be fun to finish disentangling the thread. We untied all of the knots in half an hour. Laid out on the subway seats, the sheer volume of thread was quite overwhelming. The sight of the red and blue thread on the green fabric seats was also visually striking, like a painting, or a rendering of my heart's innermost feelings. It was beautiful. "It looks pretty long." "Around fifty meters you think? No it's got to be at least a hundred. Maybe more?" "Why don't we measure it? The length of this car is around twenty meters, so if we carry the thread and go back and forth we can easily figure it out." "How do you know the car is twenty meters?" "Can't you see? It says so right there." I pointed to the sign posted over the train door. It told you how long and wide the train was, as well as the car number. When riding the subway by myself I would read this sign in a stupor. Sometimes I even memorized the car number. I imagined it would feel good to ride the same subway car of the same train more than once. Commuters who left for work at the same time everyday probably took the same train, but I doubted any of them checked the car number. Only four other passengers were in the subway car with us. None of them looked like the type who would get suspicious if we started walking up and down the length of the car
with thread in our hands. M took one end of the blue thread and stood up. He held the thread firmly in one hand and proceeded at a leisurely pace, looking like a guy taking his invisible dog for a walk. The thread trailed behind M, twisting and turning on the seats like a snake. Once M reached the far end of the car he folded the string back on itself and began walking in the other direction. But with nothing to fix the thread in place, it kept trailing M and made it impossible to measure the length this way. "It keeps following me. Why don't you go over there and hold it?" "Then who's going to hold it on this end? Should we hire a temp? No, here's how we'll do it. You just walk all the way to the other end of the train and come back." "That makes sense! Should've said so earlier." M grabbed the thread and kept walking. We were worried that the string would get caught in the doors between cars, but thankfully it made it through okay. The gap between the closed door and the doorframe was wide enough to let a few strands of thread through without any trouble. M wobbled along, following the rhythm of the rattling subway. I controlled the flow of the thread, making sure the strands didn't get tangled up again. It was a little like flying a kite. M had already disappeared from sight but I could feel him walking somewhere further on. The blue thread kept trailing behind M. After about five minutes I could see my end of the blue thread. I looped it around my right index finger so it wouldn't slip away from me. Would M know when there wasn't anymore slack? Suddenly, I felt the thread yanking taut. It seemed like, if he were to pull on it just a little bit harder, the strand would snap. I could feel M's force on the other end of the thread. Then the string fell back down on the floor of the car. When M reappeared through the door to the next car, he had a big grin on his face. "Hey, this is really fun. Everybody was looking at me, walking past with a thread trailing along after me. You should try it, too. Watch how their expressions change." "So how long is it? How many cars did you go through?" "I don't know. At first I was counting, but I lost track after awhile, with everyone staring. Forget about the length! I'm going to do it again if you're not." M grabbed hold of the red thread before I had a chance to respond. I couldn't understand what was so fun about it, but if it got him this excited, I had to give it a try. I snatched the thread from M's hand. He looked clearly disappointed but surrendered the thread for my sake. Just as I stood up, holding the red thread, a station agent entered
from the next car. He was holding a balled up bunch of blue thread. "Does this thread belong to you?" Thanks to the station agent, the single strand that had taken us half an hour to disentangle now looked exactly the way it had before we began. The one end of the red thread was in my hand. The rest of it sat in a heap on the seat beside me. There was no room for evasive measures. "Yes." "We got a report that a suspicious man in a suit was planting a bomb on the train." "A bomb?" My voice sounded louder than I had intended. Somebody must've mistaken the blue thread for a detonator fuse. Somewhere on this planet, there must be someone who would use colorful fuses when building bombs. "Why did you leave this thread on the floor of the car, sir? You're not planting a bomb, are you?" "Would someone who planted a bomb say, 'Yes, as a matter of fact I did just plant a bomb?' Anyway, why isn't it going off? Should blow any second nowâ€Ś" M, who had been sitting silently until then, jumped into the conversation. The station agent looked back and forth between us. It must've been a rare sight to see two men in suits holding hanks of blue and red thread. M couldn't stop laughing. "I think you'd better come with me." The station agent collected the loose bundle of red thread from the seat. He poked at the newspapers strewn in the overhead luggage racks and searched the area around our seats. The station clerk would know right away there was no bomb. We didn't look like the kind of people who would have anything to do with explosives. I'm not saying it takes a particular type of person to plant a bomb, but I do think that people who say to themselves, 'I'm going to blow up the world!' probably have a different look about them. Our eyes probably read firecrackers, rather than explosives. When the remaining passengers heard the three of us talking about a bomb, they all moved to the next car. "I apologize," I said to the station agent in a soft voice. "What we're doing here, it's supposed to be art." The station agent turned his head and stared at me. He looked as though he was hearing the word 'art' for the first time in his life. Come to think of it, I felt like I was saying the
word 'art' for the first time. "What do you mean, 'art'?" Both the station agent and M were looking at me now. "Don't you know what art is?" "You call planting a bomb art?" "There's no bomb. My friend gets carried away sometimes. Just look at this thread. It's not a fuse. It's nothing but plain old thread. We're trying to provide a unique experience for ordinary people worn down by the grind of their everyday lives. You might call it performance art, or something along those lines. Anyway, that's the kind of work we do." "You call leaving thread strewn about the subway floor art?" "You might say our piece is about stitching up the broken pieces of the modern man's soul with a single thread. Isn't the subway the space that best reflects the life of a modern man?" M kept giggling by my side, but the subway agent was listening to me in earnest. It looked like he was searching for an appropriate response. It might've been because he heard the word 'art,' or because I was being so polite, but the station agent's demeanor softened a bit. "I understand what you're saying, but you can't be doing things like that on the subway." "Things like what?" "Things like art." "Right, art. I understand." "This is a public space. You never know what might happen." "We'll find another place then. We're really sorry." "I'm going to have to confiscate the thread. Please show me your Citizen Registration Cards I should make a record of this incident just in case,." The station agent checked our ID and moved on to the next car. We got off when the train arrived at the next station. We had never seen that particular station before and we didn't even know what part of the city we were in, but it didn't matter. If we stayed on the train, the station agent might come back, saying, I've changed my mind. I'm afraid you'll have to come with me. "That was hilarious. Art? Aren't you disappointed that I got to have all the fun putting on the art while you missed out?"
M began giggling again. He had a point because I did feel as though I had missed out on something. I had said all those things without thinking but I was curious as to how people had reacted to the sight of a business man dragging around a long strand of thread. It really seemed possible that we had provided a unique experience to those worn down by their lives' grinding ordinariness. "This one guy thought a thread was unraveling from my pants and tried to alert me. I should've let my pants slip down and shown my ass. This other guy even took a picture. Now that was really funny. I was cracking upâ€Ś" We caught a bus that took us close to our place and went to a pub. We had sweated so much that our suits smelled a little fishy. When I downed the beer, the liquid unspooled inside of me like thread, seeping into every nook in my body. If I closed my eyes and focused on the beer spreading inside me I felt I could know the length of my body. We started talking about our upcoming interview. We were scheduled for an interview two days later at a company that makes electronic kitchen scales. The more discussions and interviews M and I had, the more it felt like we were evaluating the company, not the other way around. We seemed to have arrived at an agreement not to work for a company that didn't understand our fun approach to the interview process. True, we were the ones who lost out in this agreement, but we saw no alternatives. Besides, once you start something, you have to see it through to the end. "What if we brought something we cooked?" M said. His was face flushed from the beers he had downed in rapid succession. You could say that it looked as though he had swallowed red thread. "I see where you're going. We feed them stuff that is barely edible and say, 'Now we've experienced first-hand the true importance of a kitchen scale.' Right?" "You catch on quick, that's for sure." "Since there's no way we're going to make the cut, why don't we throw in some laxatives, too?" "They might end up hiring us because we helped them lose weight." "And we spend the rest of our lives selling kitchen scales." "That I can't go for." "So why did we apply in the first place?" "I thought it would be fun to do something with a kitchen scale during the interview."
"That's what I thought. Hey, what if in the end we never land a single job? We're already twenty-seven." "We're only twenty-sevenâ€Ś I'm sure we'll find something in time." "I wonder what though. Is there anything we're any good at?" M became sullen upon hearing this. We kept gulping down our beers without saying anything. M and I put all the money we had on the table. Each time we ordered drinks, we slid the amount that each beer cost from the right side of the table to the left. The pile on the right slowly shifted to the left. It was a race to get drunk before our pile of money ran out, but drinking while looking at our money was keeping us from getting drunk. Even after downing several beers we were completely sober. "We have enough for four drinks left." "Why aren't we getting drunk?" "Let's chug it." We raised our pints of draft beer high and downed them in one long pull. I burped and became dizzy. From that point on we were officially drunk. We headed for home when all the money on the table had moved to the left. When I woke the next day, I felt a hangover spinning around my head like the rings of Saturn. The rings kept spinning and I could feel their weight as they pressed down on my head. M seemed to be in about the same shape as me. We had a couple of bowls of spicy Chinese noodles delivered and we sat there slurping up the broth. The sight of the noodle soup reminded us of the interview we'd botched the day before. The white, bean thread noodles rubbed us the wrong way. We left the empty bowls outside the door and lay in the room while staring up at the ceiling. We had nothing to say. We had the next day's interview to prepare for, but we weren't in the mood. Around three that afternoon, I got a call on my cell phone. It was a friend who'd gotten a job at a news website around two months ago. We had been drinking together when his offer call came; he was so excited that he'd kissed me on the cheek. M roped the guy into celebrating until four in the morning. Of course, the friend with the new job paid for all the drinks. That day, he lost his cell phone and his wallet and managed to get his chin scraped up God-knows-how. "Admit it. You guys punched me out of jealousy, didn't you?" he had complained. "Because you can't get jobs?" But we weren't the type to get envious over something like a job. The news website that had hired him was quite well-known in
its field, but also notorious for doling out a ton of work for little pay. The next day, the friend called us to meet him at a department store and bought us each a tie, to wish us the best on our job interviews. For himself, he bought a suit, a cell phone (the latest model) and a wallet made of lambskin. "I'm going to live the second half of my life in style," he said, on our way out of the department store. "You used up a lot of your strength in the first half, you'll most likely get slaughtered in the second. I say twenty to nothing." He must've been offended by M's teasing, because he didn't call us for a long time after that. I don't think it's fair to say that a person is entering the 'second half' of his life at the age of twenty-seven. The way I saw it, we had yet to complete our first quarter. "Are you there with M by any chance?" His voice was really low, as if he was about to tell me something he didn't want M to hear. "We're lying here together, as a matter of fact. We just took some poison. We made a suicide pactâ€Ś Nobody will hire us. We're out of money. We can't even get soberâ€Ś" My voice sounded so weak and hoarse that I thought he might actually think I was suicidal. I cleared my throat and swallowed the phlegm. "Seriously. So you're both there. Can you ask M if he was on the subway yesterday?" "I'll hand him the phone so you can ask him yourself. It looks like he's still got a pulse." "Hey, you know things are still a little weird between us. Just ask him if he was on the subway for me." M was either asleep or just pretending to be, fully aware that we were talking about him. "M was on the subway. He was with me." "So you were there together? Was he walking around the subway pulling a strand of blue thread?" "How did you know?" "It was him! It was M! I couldn't say for sure because the guy's wearing a suit." "I'm asking you. How do you know about this?" "There's a picture up on the Web. Hold on. I'll give you the URL." I keyed in the address my friend read to me. It was a personal blog called "Street Scenery." A picture of M popped up on the screen. There was M in his suit, his eyes focused on the ground, walking towards the camera. You could see the thin blue thread behind him. At a glance, it looked like the image of the blue thread had been pasted onto
the photo. There were five pictures of M in all. The shot taken from behind showed the blue thread most vividly. The pictures had been uploaded five hours earlier, and already two hundred comments had been posted. The reactions varied. One person speculated that M had lost his girlfriend in a car accident, and unable to forget her, he was letting her clothes unravel in his hands as he carried them from place to place. Another person said it looked like M was traveling around the whole country with the string in his hands. Another said that it had been faked, that someone had just drawn a blue line over the photos. I woke M. He began to laugh as soon as he saw the website. His laughter only grew stronger as he read the comments, until, once he'd read the last one, he collapsed on the floor. "These guys are pretty damn creative. How do they come up with this stuff? Check out this last one. 'He's a businessman pulling out his girlfriend's rotted tooth with string, while she sits in the next car.'" M was rolling around on the floor. It wasn't funny enough to justify all that rolling, but I could see from M's point of view, how such a response might be warranted. It had to be fascinating to see the variety of descriptions people could come up with after looking at your photo. It could've been me in the photograph. "My company wants to interview M for an article. They think he's some kind of street performer. What was he doing carrying that blue string around anyway?" My friend must've been able to hear M laughing over the phone because his tone suddenly turned sour. He'd always disliked the way M played the fool. "I don't understand why you hang out with him all the time," he'd often said to me. Every time this friend said it, I liked him a little less. I didn't like the way he used the word 'understand' in this context. I don't think that a relationship between two people is something anyone can really understand. Every time I heard him say this, I wanted to confront him about it, but every time I was about to say something, I worried that I might lose a friend. I liked his earnestness and the curiosity in his eyes. I considered telling him the long, tangled story of our interview and the thread, but I thought it might make M seem pathetic. It would definitely make me seem a little pathetic. "Your company was right. What we were doing was art." "Art? Since when do you guys have anything to do with art?"
"It was a subway performance. Our theme was about tying together the broken pieces of the modern man's soul. â€Ś Something like that." "How long have you two been up to this? Just so you know, art doesn't really suit you guys." M was busy working the computer keyboard. He was probably pulling another prank. I wondered what comment he was writing below the picture. "It's been awhile. We just hadn't talked to you about it. In fact, just recently we did a little performance on a bus." "What did you do on the bus?" I imagined a bus. What could we have done on a bus? On a bus you have a driver, seats, a stop bell, some handlesâ€Ś "We stuffed a huge nest of thread in the compartment behind the seats, where all the ads are." "What for?" "I wanted to see what the passengers could do with the thread. It was an experiment." "What did they do?" I tried to think about all the things a person could do with blue thread and came up blank. I put my hand over the receiver and asked M, who was still typing away at the computer. "Strangle the person sitting in front of you," he said. "They weren't very imaginative," I said to the friend. "Most people just played cat's cradle with the person next to them." "I'm a little surprised by all this. Listen, let me call you back." After hanging up, I read what M had posted online. It said, 'Maybe the man was trying to use the blue thread to tie up the train.' "That's pretty weak." "Is it? I must not be very imaginative. I'll have to think about it some more." We lay down again to think about what else we could do with blue thread, but soon we were feeling sleepy. By the time we woke, it was seven o'clock in the evening. It was getting dark outside. We'd been robbed of time. Everything was moving too fast. I'd believed that even the first quarter of my life hadn't ended, but it occurred to me now that my friend might be right; maybe the second half of our lives had already begun. We had been asleep in the locker room, while everybody else in the stadium was out there
competing. M suddenly stood up and emptied the contents of our piggy bank onto the desk. He started sorting the coins. He did this very seriously and meticulously, like someone dealing cards at a casino. He made a stack for every ten coins and slowly counted up the change. The process didn't take long because from time to time we had been spending what we'd saved in the piggy bank. M counted the coins twice. "How much do we have left?" I asked him, while staring at the ceiling. What I really wanted him to do was somehow quantify how wretched our lives had become. "We might be able to scrape together enough to buy a box of ramyeon noodles." "Let's buy some ramyeon then, before we blow it all." M headed out the door, dumping the coins into both of his pockets. I lay on the floor quietly and wondered what life would be like without M. I couldn't really imagine it, but it seemed the time had come for each of us to navigate our own paths. The room I was lying in was like a slowly sinking ship. We'd been living in this sinking ship, huddled tight in our embrace. Our life together was like running the three-legged race on field day. You tie your right leg to your partner's left and try your best to run in sync, but there's no way you can run as fast as someone running on his own. It might be more fun, but you're going to be slow. I felt we had fallen too far behind. It was time to cut the rope binding our ankles before it was too late to catch up. I wondered how M would respond if I told him that. Maybe he had been waiting for me to bring it up, to be the first to say we should untie the rope. I was thinking about how to put the idea to M when the phone rang. "I told the editor about you and he gave me the assignment to interview you guys. When are you free tomorrow?" "We have a job interview tomorrow." "Then early evening should be fine, right? I'll see you at five." "What kind of interview are we talking about? We've never done press interviews." "The editor already came up with a headline. 'Imagination and Blue Thread: The Way of the Street Performer' I told him we're friends. If you don't give me an interview, I'm finished. Could you live with that? Come on, help me out." "I'll ask M." "Why bother? You're practically a married couple. Come by our office at five. Make sure
you wear those suits because we'll be taking pictures. I guess you'll be in your suits anyway because you'll be coming from your job interview." I hung up and stared up at the ceiling. 'Imagination and Blue Thread: The Way of the Street Performer'. Performer? Exactly what were we performing? I was tired of everything and I didn't want to budge. I didn't want to go in for the kitchen scale interview. I didn't want to work in some office somewhere. I wanted someone to pick me up by the hair and drag me off. "Guess what I bought?" M yelled as he burst back in. His expression looked so innocent. He withdrew a sword from behind his back. It was only a plastic sword, but beautifully crafted. "Pretty cool, don't you think?" "It is. How did you pay for it?" "Listen to this!." M swung the plastic sword at the floor. On contact it made a sharp, piercing noise--Cheeng!--the metallic clash you hear when two blades clang against each other. M rushed around brandishing his plastic sword, whacking the objects in the room. The desk went Che-eng! The computer keyboard went Che-eng! The monitor went Che-eng! It sounded like the soundtrack to a war movie. He brought the sword down to make contact with me on the floor, and my body set off another Che-eng! "What happened to the ramyeon?" "So that's what I went out for... I was wondering why I had change left over." "We need two to have a sword fight." "The guy's got plenty over there by the intersection . Want me to go buy another one?" "Forget it. A sword fight? How old are we? Besides, we should be buying ramyeon with the left-over money." "Who cares how old we are?" I filled M in on the interview for the news story. He seemed to find it highly amusing, which surprised me because I thought M wouldn't want to get involved in anything like that. M started to make a big fuss about how we should wear identical suits, like a uniform, but we both knew we didn't have the money for that. We headed out for the intersection. A countless array of toys were on display under gaudy lights. There were cars, trains, guns, arrows and shields. Most of it was junk. I
could see right away why M had picked out the sword. We bought another plastic sword as well as a shield made of transparent plastic. When I first saw it, I'd thought the shield was made of glass. A shield that would break if you dropped it. A shield that you could see through, but couldn't protect you from enemy attack. A shield you had to wipe clean everydayâ€Ś It was amusing to consider these things. It was only when I reached out and touched the shield that I realized it was made of plastic, not glass. Still, I thought having a shield you could see through might have great advantages in battle. After buying the sword and shield, we had enough money left over for ten packets of ramyeon. To have a proper sword fight, we really needed two shields, but we'd decided it would be best to save a little money for ramyeon. The shield made the same Che-eng sound. It made sense that a sword would go Che-eng, but it seemed odd that the shield would make such a sound. If you hit the shield with your head, it went Che-eng, and if you hit it with your fist, it also went Che-eng. If you hit the shield with your sword, it made this weird Che-che-eng. They made a strange set together. "I don't feel like going to the kitchen scale interview tomorrow," M said, striking a guard rail along the road with his sword. "Why not?" I asked him. I hit the same guard rail with my sword. "I don't really like the idea of a company that sells kitchen scales. What about you?" "Same here." "Let's skip it." "Okay." We kept walking while whacking the guard rail with our swords. The people walking by stared at us, but we kept hitting the guard rail. I couldn't really hear the Che-eng very well because of the din of the street. "Should we try this artist thing?" M said, striking my shield the sword. "It looks like we have a knack for it. We can use the interview tomorrow as a chance to pursue this art thing seriously." "You think you can just take up art? What do we even know about art? I mean, if horsing around was art we'd win first prize. But to tell you the truth, I don't want to do this interview,. Doesn't it seem kind of ridiculous that we're agreeing to be interviewed about what was basically a lark?"
"It'll be fun." I couldn't understand what might be fun about it. I struck the shield in my left hand with the sword in my right. I whacked it really hard but the sound didn't get that much louder. Our swords were getting drowned out by the traffic whizzing by and the sound of the radio blaring from the cosmetics store. We went home to find that roughly five hundred comments had now been posted in response to the thread pictures. M plopped himself down in front of the computer and scrupulously read each and every one, but I didn't have the energy. I still felt hung over and the inside of my mouth felt scratchy and dry. The next morning, we slept in. We didn't show up for the interview at the scale company. After eating a late lunch we put on our suits and headed for the offices of the news website. We were nervous about doing that kind of interview, but we'd decided it would be a fun experience. We took a deep breath and went inside to meet our friend. "Since I know nothing about art," he said, "this gentleman is going to fill in for me today. He's our Arts Reporter." Our friend introduced the reporter, who gave us his business card, which also read 'Arts Reporter.' We were still getting used to the idea that a position called 'Arts Reporter' actually existed, but since we'd become artists, we greeted him trying to pretend everything was as we had expected. The Arts Reporter and his photographer walked with us towards the subway. "Today's shoot's going to be all about freestyle. Okay?" the photographer said, but we had no idea what he meant by freestyle. We walked through the subway train holding the blue cord that the Arts Reporter had put in our hands. It was thick, more like rope than thread. They said it had to be at least that thick to come out properly in the photograph. "This isn't 'free' at all," M complained. "I feel like a slave in bondage being dragged off." I'd been thinking exactly the same thing. "Okay. Go ahead and do whatever you want then," the photographer said, sighing. M pulled out the shield and the plastic swords from the bag to show them to the Arts Reporter. M had spent an hour stuffing his bag with a random assortment of props, saying we might need them for the shoot. "Why don't you take pictures of us playing with this stuff? It might be fun." "Why? What are you going to do?" "Have a sword fight."
"It might make you look juvenile. You should stick with the thread." We ignored the Arts Reporter's suggestion and started brandishing our swords. M had his sword. I had my sword and shield. M shouted in my direction, "You fool! Do you think a shield like that can stop my sword?" "Do you think a plastic sword can shatter my glass shield? I can see your every move." Our swords clashed. The subway car echoed with the sound Che-che-cheng. It rang out more loudly than I had expected. The Arts Reporter sat in a seat gaping at us with his mouth hanging open. He did not look amused; it looked more like he couldn't bear to watch how childish we were. Still we went at each other with our swords, giving it our all, as though we were locked in a battle to the death. The photographer kept shooting away, but he didn't look happy about it. Then two children who had been sitting pretty far away approached us. The spectacle of two grown men in suits having a sword fight must've been too much to resist. They watched attentively as we battled it out. Two women, probably their mothers, came closer, as did two old men, curious about the source of the Che-eng sound, and a younger man and woman who looked like a couple. The crowd of people watching our sword fight grew slowly. We were sweating heavily and working hard to attack any opening we saw, but we were moving so preposterously slow that it didn't look like an actual fight. It was closer to a dance. The two children who had noticed us first tugged on their mother's hands and begged, "I want a sword like that!" Within five minutes, about thirty people had gathered around to watch. They all looked fascinated. The Arts Reporter's face brightened and the photographer's hands began to move more quickly. I gave a nod to M, who immediately understood and let his sword drop. I used the blue cord we'd left on the seat to tie him up. Or rather, I looped the cord around M's body. Just then the train stopped at the next station. We left our swords and the shield where they lay in the car and stepped out onto the platform. The photographer and the Arts Reporter followed us. The shield and swords we had left as gifts for the children. "That was fun, right?" M said proudly. The Arts Reporter laughed. We headed to a coffee shop where the Arts Reporter hit us with questions the moment we sat down. But we didn't have much more to say. The questions were too hard. "Bruce Nauman articulates his aesthetic principles by recording the language of his body in the form of photography. Were you guys at all influenced by this genre?"
"Who?" "Bruce Nauman said that a genuine artist helps the world by bringing mysterious truths to light. As artists, what would you say is the underlying meaning of your performances?" "We help the world by bringing ordinary truths to light." "What's an example of an ordinary truth?" "Having a good time." That's about how the interview went. We tried to turn all of our answers into jokes. When M was asked, "How do you handle financial problems?" he answered, "We handle them financially." To the question, "Why did you choose thread, of all things, for your subway performance," I answered, "All of our failures made us feel like we were unraveling. Maybe that's where the thread came from." After awhile, it got to be a bit much for the Arts Reporter. He seemed most interested when we talked about our job interviews. We had so little to say that we started acting like our job interviews had really been transcendent pieces of performance art. "Our favorite activity is to play during the job interview. Even though we've done a lot of job interviews, we never had any desire to actually get hired. We've done stand-up routines and performed magic shows before a panel of interviewers. It was at one of those events that we introduced thread. That was really fun." "Tell me more about what you did with the thread." "You worked to disentangle a bunch of thread before a panel of interviewers. The goal was to see how long they were willing to wait. It tests the perseverance of the interviewers." "What happened?" "The interviewers themselves were so impatient that they couldn't even wait five minutes. You'd think that any recruiter who was truly interested in finding the right person for the job would be willing to wait at least five minutes. Isn't it ridiculous to judge a person after meeting with that person for five minutes?" "I agree. So your performance critiques the rigidness and inflexibility of our corporate culture. How many of these faux interviews have you done?" "About thirty. We do something different every time."
We were excited to be talking about our many job interviews. When it came to the hiring process, we actually had a lot to say. Once we'd lied and said we never had any intention of being hired by those companies, I began to believe that what we had been doing all along was indeed art. The next day, the news website posted our story under the headline 'Subway Pranksters Lay Siege On Our Lack of Imagination.' Next to the article there was one picture of our sword fight, another of M tangled up in the blue cord and of the large crowd that gathered to watch us about halfway into our battle. The stories we'd told about our job interviews made up the largest part of the article. "Not bad, huh?" "An Arts Reporter indeed. His article actually makes us look like real artists." From the day the article went online, we became celebrities. A filmmaker contacted us about shooting a documentary called 'Street Artists' and one university called, wanting us to lecture on the subject of 'Transformative Thinking.' We got several requests for interviews and we turned all of them down with the exception of one, an advertising firm that asked us to screen job applicants for them. When it came to the hiring process, we were confident. Of course they weren't giving us the final say on whether the applicants would be hired. We were two out of total of ten interviewers. But we were excited at the prospect of asking the questions for a change. The night before our first interviews, M and I were talking strategy. Not so long before we had been the ones being evaluated, but now we would be the ones handing out the scores. But nothing else had changed. We were focused only on what would make the hiring process more exciting. "Hey, I got a call just now from these guys asking us to be in charge of their interviews too." "How many does that make? Are we turning into interview specialists?" "I like the sound of that. Interview specialists. Let's do that." There were plenty of companies around, and companies were always hiring new employees. There would always be work available. If we put in a little effort, it seemed that we could make a living as interview consultants. After discussing our ideas for the interviews at the advertising firm, we got to work preparing some party crackers. We planned to set them off suddenly in the middle of the
interview. With a loud pop, a colorful array of string and confetti would spill out before the startled applicants. We didn't warn the other interviewers on the panel, so they were just as surprised by that first cracker. The applicants showed a wide range of responses. One guy screamed. Another guy jumped and cold sweat dripped from his face. One guy fell over backwards in his chair. The point of setting off the party crackers had been to see how nervous the candidates were. The guy who laughed out loud when the cracker exploded got the highest score. Our idea was that you couldn't do anything right if you were too nervous. "What's next?" "A securities firm. What would be a good gimmick for this company?" "Do you know anything about securities?" "Nope." "So what if we ask the applicants to ask the questions themselves? They ask the questions and we give them the answers. We know how it goes from doing all those interviews, but it's a skill, right? Being able to ask the right questions?" "That's true. Might be fun too." This interview work was fun. So were our pre-interview conferences. We kept thinking up innovative interview methods. We set off party crackers, as we had done at the advertising firm. We put a hodgepodge of props in a box and had each of job candidate select an object and do something funny with what they'd selected. We even asked some applicants to compose a personal fight song. Of course we sang them our own fight songs to spur them on. Many of the applicants clearly enjoyed our questions and activities. We couldn't help thinking that if we had been interviewed in this manner, we would have gotten jobs a long time ago. Doing these interviews, we felt for the first time that we were doing meaningful work. If you were to ask us to explain in specific terms in what way our work was meaningful, we wouldn't have had much to say. But it no longer felt like we were asleep in the locker room when the second half of the game had begun. We had been addicted to failure, and now we were in a position to console those addicted to failure. It made us happy to be someone else's shield, even if that shield happened to be made of plastic or glass. We were on our way out of our twentieth or twenty-first interview; this one for a web development firm. We interviewed so many applicants that by the time we were heading
home, we were too tired to even talk. We'd had to ask a different question according to each applicant's personality and responses, so we could not use the routine we had prepared on everyone, and we found it all incredibly tiring. Our ideas seemed to be drying up, and most importantly, the whole thing wasn't fun any more. It seemed strange that we were tired of it all after only twenty interviews. We sat in the back of the bus and looked out the window. "There's no such thing as easy work, right?" M said, still looking at the world going by the window. The question didn't seem to be directed at me. "Maybe we should start from square one," I said. "I don't think we were cut out for this." I was looking out the window, too. We were both watching the same scenery out there. "Square one? You mean go back to when we were the ones getting interviewed? That was fun too, but I think we're better off now." "No, I mean before that." "You mean we should go back to college." "Even further back." M turned to face me with a silly grin. "You're not saying we should make a suicide pact, are you? Die together, be re-incarnated and meet up again?" "No." "Now that I think about it. I can't remember when it all started. We must've taken some fork in the road, right?" "What was your dream?" "My dream? Why are you bringing up dreams all of a sudden? Don't be corny." M turned to face the window. He said nothing more. But I could tell he wasn't looking at the scenery; he was trying to remember what his dream had been. He had said at one point that he wanted to be a landscape architect. At other times he'd wanted to be a professional traveler, or a director of a zoo. I did not know which, if any of these, was M's dream M opened the bus window wide. The wind rushed in past M to reach me. M stuck his head half-way out the window. We didn't speak. The moment I caught a glimpse of M's profile it occurred to me that this might be the last time I would be riding the bus with him like this. We'd boarded the bus, sat there blankly and exchanged only a few brief words, but in that time M and I seemed to have passed through something. I guess you
could call it a fork in the road. It felt as though he had chosen the path going left and I had chosen the path going right, and in the process the rope binding our ankles had come gently undone. I turned to face the back of the bus and looked out at the road behind us. The taut electric wires overhead showed the way to where we had arrived. A stage in my life was in the middle of passing me by, I thought, a time I could not exactly name, a time without a clear beginning or an end. Copyright 2008 Literature Translation Institute of Korea