It’s been 15 years since the release of Ed Park’s 2008 debut, Personal Days. Though the book has become a classic in the office novel subgenre, it’s still remembered in conjunction with another workplace satire: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which published a year earlier and, unlike Park’s novel, went on to become a bestseller.
“Who knew that that book would be so big?” Park says of Ferris’s novel, laughing. He’s speaking via Zoom from a hotel room in Banff, Canada, taking a moment away from his vacation with his wife and two teenage children. Park hasn’t read Ferris’s book, but he remembers his own debut fondly, saying he was happy with the publication and the attention it received. After it came out, though, he was ready to do something different—something that grappled with his cultural identity.
His follow-up, Same Bed Different Dreams (Random House, Nov.), is a massive undertaking—PW’s review described it as an “ingenious epic of Korean and Korean American history framed in a satire of the publishing and tech industries.” The scale of ambition, layers of complexity, and artful precision are more than enough to explain the lengthy gap between it and Personal Days. There were other reasons, though. He taught at Columbia University and NYU, then worked as a book editor, first at Little A and then Penguin Press, until 2017. He also became a dad.
“It’s been 15 years since my first kid was born, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Personal Days came out 15 years ago,” Park says. “I was always trying to write, you know, putting in the time.” Luckily, his other work all fed into the project. “All of these things are good for each other,” he adds, noting that themes of parenthood and ancestry were driving forces as he pieced together the novel.
Same Bed Different Dreams is about an “unfinished masterpiece” by an obscure Korean author named Echo, a sprawling hybrid narrative that purports to be a secret history of the Korean Provisional Government, which was in exile during Japan’s occupation of the peninsula up until the end of World War II. Park’s protagonist, Soon Sheen, is a novelist turned tech worker whose parents, like Park’s, emigrated from South Korea in the 1960s to Buffalo, N.Y. After Soon meets Echo at a party hosted by an old publishing friend, he gets his hands on the manuscript.
Fans of Personal Days who have been waiting for this follow-up will find Park’s portrayal of the lapsed writer affecting. Soon is less than satisfied working for a Google-like company called Gloat and, once he dives into Echo’s book, he regularly unplugs from his job to read it.
The captivating quality of Echo’s obscure manuscript feels like a nod to the hidden gems Park is known for championing as a critic. Though he’s a big fan of postmodern titans like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, he has a reputation for bringing light to forgotten work by writers such as Russell Hoban and Charles Portis, the latter of whom he identified as being “like Cormac McCarthy, but funny” in a 2003 piece for the Believer. (Park is a cofounder of the magazine.)
When asked what draws him to underappreciated books, Park says, “I wonder if it’s partly because there was something about the mainstream novel that I felt excluded from.” Reflecting on coming of age in the 1980s as a bookworm and his time in the Columbia MFA program in the 1990s, he recalls, “I wasn’t seeing a lot of people who look like me or had kind of my background. And it’s almost like, sure, I’ll read a book by a Hungarian refugee that was written in French or, you know, a weird goose chase by Charles Portis. I think, partly, there was this unconscious wish to elevate these books because I wanted what is spoken of as literature to be a little broader, and then maybe I would be included in that embrace as well.” By this point, he’s broken into a laugh, and he concludes in pure self-effacing fashion: “That’s maybe too deep, but it’s occurred to me.”
Asian American identity wasn’t a major theme in Personal Days, though the book touches on race with a recurring episode in which an HR person confuses two people of color in the predominantly white office—something that happened to him and a colleague at the Village Voice, where he worked until 2006 as editor of the literary supplement.
He first got the idea to delve into Korean history while he was at Columbia. Having grown up in a small family in Buffalo, far from large Korean American populations, he knew there was so much he didn’t know. He enrolled in a seminar on modern Korean history, taught by the late Gari Ledyard, an American scholar of Korea, whom he credits with giving him an understanding of how Japanese colonization and the Korean War shaped his parents, and for telling him there was “grist for a novel” in his passion and curiosity.
When Park finally got started on Same Bed Different Dreams, one of the conceits was that a Korean author could never break into the U.S. market. It was an assumption Park himself held while working in publishing, until 2016, when a translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian became a runaway bestseller here.
“When you sit with your own creative project for such a long time,” he says, “certain things come to pass and you have to check your assumptions.”
As the novel took shape, one of the major challenges was finding a way to justify having a book within the book. Park knew he wanted to apply what he loves in revisionist historicals like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon to Korea and landed on an organizing principle after looking back at Underworld by DeLillo, a novel that threaded together huge swaths of 20th-century American history with the story of a baseball that kept changing hands.
One of Park’s postmodern flourishes involves a character named Parker Jotter, a Black veteran of the Korean War with a delightfully Pynchonesque name who returns to Buffalo after surviving a POW camp and writes a series of radical science fiction novels in the vein of Philip K. Dick called 2333. Some readers may recognize the series title as a reference to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, but the number has its own hidden meanings in Park’s novel. Without going into spoilers, it relates to the Korean Provisional Government, which, according to Echo’s book within the book, did not disband after Japan’s 1945 withdrawal from Korea (like the real KPG did), but in fact continues to operate as a secret international organization aimed at reunifying the country. It’s safe to reveal, though, that Jotter is a member of the KPG.
Park put a lot of himself into the book, too, drawing not just on his experience in publishing and his Korean American identity but also on his hometown of Buffalo. In addition to the Jotter story, there’s an episode referencing a bit of sports history—specifically a 1976 publicity stunt by the city’s NHL team, the Sabres, involving a fictitious Japanese draft pick. (Park’s father hasn’t missed a Bills or Sabres game in decades, and Park grew up a dedicated Buffalo sports fan. Like the KPG, sports fandom is inclusive.)
With Same Bed Different Dreams, Park has not only written the Underworld of Korean history but has created a novel that won’t be upstaged by someone else’s book. In the time spent since his debut as an editor and critic, and having built on decades of inspiration, he’s more than deserved his embrace.