Factory of Facts

Same Bed Different Dreams By Ed Park. New York: Random House. 544 pages. $30.

The cover of Same Bed Different Dreams

NOT TO MAKE THIS review about me or anything, but about ten years ago I published a big book with multiple characters and story lines. My dad, then in his seventies, said I should have included a character list and roadmap because he had trouble following it all. I remember thinking, in response, that he’d obviously gotten old and slow and that his tastes were conservative and fuddy duddy. Today, I’m willing to concede I might have turned into this same fuddy-duddy, which I offer up as context for my thoughts on Ed Park’s—what is the right adjective here? discursive? fascinating? bewitching?—new novel, Same Bed Different Dreams

Such a good title, for starters. Applicable to pretty much any contested landmass, marriage, or, say, history of any of the above. Which is what this novel is about, sorta, a contested, reimagined history of Korea that implicates not just the usual suspects—politicians, activists, military—but also famous writers and actors alongside ordinary game makers, translators, and a low-level hamster-wheeling employee at a tech company that has all the power we suspect Google’s already grabbed but isn’t ready to admit.

The novel’s premise is that the Korean Provisional Government (KPG)—once a government in exile that disbanded in the late 1940s—actually still exists as a kind of shadow organization working toward unifying the North and South. As such, the KPG has its hand in everything and has done so for years. Who’s a member? Everyone, it seems. Ronald Reagan. Thomas Wolfe. Marilyn Monroe. And, interestingly enough, the leaders of both the North and South—a staunch Communist and a Christian who want to unify the country . . . on their terms.   

As for structure, we’re looking at three narrative threads that interweave. One is pulled by Soon Sheen, the “nicely compensated drudge” who ascends to the coveted status of a “rung ten” employee at a tech conglomerate called GLOAT. Another thread is pulled by Parker Jotter, a sci-fi writer who’s also a Korean War vet and whose wife is essentially hijacked by followers of cult leader Sun Myung Moon (the Moonies). The third thread is a book in a book that reconstructs the history of Korea and the war. It’s ostensibly written by a writer named Echo (get it?), but it’s narrated by the collective voice of the KPG. The book in a book, also called Same Bed Different Dreams, is said to make readers go crazy. Not so much fandom crazy as gaslit crazy. Apparently, when the first chapter was published in South Korea, it made readers go nuts because “People didn’t recognize their country.” Small wonder since the chapters or “dreams” are a mix of fact and fiction without drawing a hard line between the two. I kept googling everything and everyone, trying to see what was “true” and what wasn’t (which mirrors the experience of Soon Sheen, who’s also reading the “dreams”). I kept trying to piece together all the clues strewn throughout these pages in search of the grand design. One afternoon, while I was reading in the lounge of a music studio, someone I didn’t know took a picture—on the sly—of me reading, which seemed weird and suspicious. I got paranoid right away: Is Ed Park part of the Korean Provisional Government? Am I?

Sea Hyun Lee, Beyond Red, 2023, oil on linen, 78 3/4" × 78 3/4". Courtesy: the artist and CHOI&CHOI Gallery
Sea Hyun Lee, Beyond Red, 2023, oil on linen, 78 3/4″ × 78 3/4″. Courtesy: the artist and CHOI&CHOI Gallery

Throughout this novel: assassins and conspiracy. Connections and innuendo. UFOs. Several people with missing fingers. A recurring handkerchief. Anagrams and word play. Parker Jotter’s publisher’s name is D. M. Zephyr, initials DMZ (itself the initials of the infamous demilitarized zone that separates North from South Korea). Everyone has a backstory full of secrets and intrigue and what’s so fabulous about all this is that it’s disorienting and maybe deliberately confounding. I mean, I attempted to take notes, to map out family trees and how the characters relate to each other. And then I just gave up because the storytelling here is so good I quit trying to solve it all, to get the better of this novel, as it were, and just to enjoy the ride. Because it’s quite a ride (take that, fuddy duddy).

Let’s start with the “dreams”—each tackling a different period in Korea’s history, though the timelines are all over the place. Via a numbered series of vignettes, we begin to meet the heroes of Korea’s fight for independence from Japan. And a roster of KPG members—writers and activists who were tortured and jailed. We meet double agents and often sidestep to stories that don’t seem germane to the action but which are undoubtedly germane. For instance: Tim Horton, former hockey player and founder of an eponymous donut chain—we hang out with him for a while. Or Betsy Palmer, best known for her role in Friday the 13th, a movie much beloved by cinephile and autocrat of the North, Kim Jong-il. We meet Thomas Ahn, who assassinated Ito Hirobumi (or did he?). We meet Hirobumi, former prime minister of Japan, who’s reached the twilight of his career and is perhaps ready to throw in the towel. We meet another assassin, “Leon,” who takes out President McKinley. We meet Syngman Rhee, first president of the KPG and South Korea. It’s like meeting folks in a Who’s Who of events implicitly related to the history of Korea, though I want to stress that by “meet” I mean we swoop into these people’s lives for just a few pages each, sometimes only a paragraph, but it’s enough to vivify them entirely. Park’s skill as a yarn weaver is on full display in the “dreams.” And when I think about all the research that backstops them, it’s impressive, to say the least.

The novel’s ballast is Soon Sheen, who reads the “dreams” along with us. As I mentioned, he works for a tech company called GLOAT, which is ornamented with all the trappings of an all-seeing tech company: creepy algorithms, creepy AI-type products (including a sex toy I can’t explain at all), and a requirement that employees are not only loyal (creepy) but also social and transparent about everything they do, all the time. Fair enough. Sheen lives in Dogskill, with a sick dog (whomp) whose chief symptom seems to be burying the “dreams” and finding them at the right time. Sheen, once a writer himself, has a sassy seven-year-old daughter named Story who’s excelling at a game whose goal—the tan gun—is also the name of the last book in Parker Jotter’s sci-fi series. Am I getting this right? I think so. Because, look, as humans we are hard-wired to look for patterns and relationships, which is the very hardwiring Park exploits. Deftly, too, and in pursuit of both an argument about history (see below) and a narrative strategy for reader engagement. After all, I might be middle aged and out of touch, but I still stuck with all this and was engaged from start to finish.

I could tell you more about Parker Jotter and his sci-fi novels that may or may not be encoded with Korean lore; I could tell you about his psychiatrist who has a role to play; I could tell you about an enigmatic artist and a Korean translator. But instead I’d rather think through just what Same Bed Different Dreams is doing. Throughout, the novel keeps asking, What is history? And offering up an answer that suggests, at minimum, that we have no idea. Just because the victors get to tell the story doesn’t mean the vanquished have a better claim to the truth. What is the truth? No doubt we’ve all been asking this question lately, especially in the context of “you have your facts and I have mine.” More poignant, still, this novel comes out at a moment when Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un are meeting in a show of partnership that only fortifies the line between North and South (each side epitomizing the problem of “your facts vs. mine”). Same Bed Different Dreams is playful, sometimes droll (Jesus Christ is apparently a member of the KPG), but at its heart, the novel’s dreams of an alternate reality aren’t so dreamy when you consider how many people worldwide routinely truck in alternate realities and conspiracy theories precipitated by tech companies like GLOAT-I-mean-Google. So really what we have here isn’t so much a novel about history as a novel about us—which is of course the same thing. Or is it.

Fiona Maazel is the author, most recently, of the novel A Little More Human (Graywolf, 2017).