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Secret History

Ed Park’s Korean-American Epic Blends Conspiracy and History

“Same Bed Different Dreams” traces a mysterious government in exile, a shadowy tech giant, and writing-community beef.

Korean history is not usually taught in schools here in the United States. We learn it in other ways: through our family and friends; through Korean school programs, often run through evangelical and Roman Catholic churches and their summer programs; through undergraduate classes in East Asian studies and Asian American studies; and through the Korean and Korean American fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoirs where we learn everything our families and teachers won’t or can’t tell us. In my own reading life, I can trace a line from an aunt who gave me an anthology of contemporary Korean women’s fiction in translation, Words of Farewell, at the end of a 1989 visit to Korea, to today and the act of writing this review.

We become amateur historians of a kind, each with our own private and continually revised sense of the country, the culture, and our relationship to it. We do so in the aftermath of the violent restructuring of the country and its culture through the Korean War, which divided Korea into its current incarnations, North and South, and before that, the 35-year colonization of Korea by the Japanese, during which time they sought to erase Korean culture and language.

Same Bed Different Dreams
by Ed Park
Random House, 544 pp., $30.00

And if it is difficult to discover Korean history in America, it is as hard or harder to locate Korean American history. And so any Korean American writer writes across some enormous gulfs when describing Korean American experiences like transracial adoption, immigration, and assimilation, reverse migration, and which forms of political and social repression inside postwar Korea our families sought to escape, producing very different reasons to emigrate—and thus, very different treatments in literature.

Few Korean American fiction writers if any have described the struggle of the Korean Provisional Government, a Korean resistance effort against the Japanese occupation that set itself up in 1919, eventually becoming a government in exile in Shanghai and producing South Korea’s controversial first president, Syngman Rhee. And none that I can think of has threaded together all of this history into the world-building of their novel—the country before its division into the North and the South and after, the diaspora in the United States and also China—until now.

Ed Park’s brilliant new novel, Same Bed Different Dreams, takes its title from the English translation of a popular saying in Korea, which invokes the way two people in a marriage or a family might share a life but have very different aims for that life—a perfect metaphor, it turns out, for the differences and similarities in Korean diasporic identities. The novel’s first three chapters introduce three very different narratives that gradually reveal themselves to be the different parts to a single narrative as it approaches the end. The central premise is bold: What if the Korean Provisional Government in exile still existed, now a secretive and mysterious organization continuing past its apparent usefulness, a shadow government that was, like the anonymous company in Park’s first novel, Personal Days, both succeeding and falling apart at the same time? What if the real mission of that government was still a unified Korea?

Park is not writing a historical novel, hoping to dramatize some episode or series of episodes in the past. He is building an alternate history of Korea and its relationship to the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, telling a story by mining and transforming the historical record. And it begins with a question that returns again and again, until it is almost like a chant in a protest: What is history?

As a novelist, Ed Park did not seem so concerned with history, at first. His debut, Personal Days (2008), was a wry and piercing office novel that captured the ambient paranoia in the lives of co-workers at an anonymous American company, hanging on to their positions as employees are fired and laid off, in a world bounded by the Good Starbucks and the Bad Starbucks, and shaped by phrases like Help me help you and The evaluations would remain anonymous. The first section of the novel uses a first-person plural narrator to unforgettable effect, and a 48-page, single-sentence final chapter is written as an email and hints at the ambition and scale of the art to come.

Same Bed Different Dreams begins inside another unnamed, unnerving company. The first chapter’s enigmatic title, “2333: The Scholars (2016),” is slippery—are we in a far-flung future or the near past? The first sentence, “What is history?” is the topic of an all-hands meeting where three scholars have been invited as guest speakers, to debate the question in front of the closed corporate audience, TED talk–style. The first speaker insists that, in an era of advertiser-driven surveillance meant to build your sales algorithm, we must return to “Day Zero,” and only “by going off the grid can one enter true history.” The second speaker, that first speaker’s former adviser, is an academic who offers this anecdote as his answer: He had taken a note for his monograph on the true nature of history, sure he’d arrived at a “shattering insight” as a conclusion; but the note, when he found it again, had been destroyed, “a summer storm had reduced it to a blank white scrap.” The third and last speaker seizes on this as a metaphor. “What is history, you ask? A message from a genius, ruined by the rain.”

“They speak to be quoted,” Park tells us—we could be anywhere in the world along the billionaire ideas festival circuit. Footage of a sleeping colleague is posted to a nameless social media forum where it goes viral, becomes a meme, an internet folk legend. “This fading, drooling figure in the crowd is part of history, too, even if the official transcript omits the incident.”

On first reading, I thought of this section as a prologue, but as the novel progresses, we find a series of chapters whose titles are all marked “2333” up front, and which, we learn, describe the life and works of a Black writer and Korean War veteran named Parker Jotter, who barely survived crashing his F-86 Sabre jet in North Korea in 1952. Jotter’s memory of the day of his capture begins with him on a dawn patrol near the border of China, where he sees “a strange aircraft, a huge disk peaking at the center like a coolie hat … rewriting the air as it moved.” He wakes up in a North Korean prison cell with a soldier named Ko Pan-gu. KPG, as his initials read on the lighter he leaves behind for Parker. And which he brings home from Korea.

After the encounter with the UFO, Jotter is possessed by a feeling he calls “the Freak,” during which he types up the novels in the 2333 series. The Freak is a “message, not in words but pulses, pauses, intimations….” Jotter will include the UFO encounter in each of his novels with the repetitive intensity of a vigil, waiting for the next signal. His story is soon a rich series of love letters to pulp science-fiction novels from the twentieth century; to Buffalo, New York; and to those conspiracy theorists ground down by America and America’s wars and yet somehow still full of hope that somewhere, someone cares enough to read what they’re hiding in code and figure it out.

The second chapter leaves behind the high-concept science fiction of the first, and we enter an entirely different story stylistically, set in another world and time and with another set of fonts. The man who will turn out to be the novel’s main character, Soon Sheen, is Park’s most likely alter ego in the sort of autofiction he is satirizing in these sections. Like Park, he is a Korean American who grew up in Buffalo (as did Parker Jotter), and we could say he is what Ed Park might have become if he had never become Ed Park: Sheen is a former short story writer living out his literary afterlife in a town named Dogskill in upstate New York and working at an amorphous tech company called GLOAT, where none of the employees really knows what the name means or stands for. His daughter is named Story, suggesting that he is at least the parent of a Story if not a writer of stories, and his dog is named Sprout—a nod, I think, to the villainous boss of the same name in Personal Days. Sheen’s entire world is something of a loving joke about the life and work of Ed Park, even as it is also a poignant reflection on those who give up on the writing life.

Sheen arrives at a Koreatown restaurant in New York called The Admiral Yi for a night of drinking that will change his life. A night in a Koreatown restaurant, a tilt-a-whirl of Asian American literary fame, ambition, and cultural anxiety with Korean barbecue smoke on the inside and cigarettes on the sidewalk. All around him is a mix of the new and old guards of this scene, with everyone jostling uncertainly and alternating between feeling like you belong in the good way and feeling like you belong in the bad way.

His college friend, Tanner Slow, now the publisher of the indie Slow Press, is throwing this party in honor of his new author, a bad-boy, avant-garde Korean writer named Cho Eujin, and he has invited exactly the New York City Asian American literati Sheen fears will show up. Soon he is hugging his old friend Monk Zingapan, a Filipino writer he knows from their time together at a culture magazine named N.Y. Whip; Yuka Tsujimoto, an ex-girlfriend from college, now an award-winning playwright; Padraig Kong, the rakish director of the Asian American Watchdog and Creative Writers’ Association, “commonly pronounced ‘Awkward’”; Loa Ding, a Hawaiian Asian American tastemaker who once interviewed him as a teen for her Asian diasporic culture zine and calls Sheen “Footnote,” her way to remind him that that is his fate if he never publishes again; and Daisy Oh, Cho Eujin’s translator, a superfan of Sheen’s as he discovers, to his dismay, when she slaps his back after being introduced and says, “Dude, I’ve read your book five times.”

Sheen learns Cho Eujin has been rebranded by his publishing house on the advice of Loa as Echo, preparing him for American and international audiences with his newly translated book, The Sins, a novel in three novels. Daisy tells him about another novel Echo is working on, one he might never finish, she says, about the secret history of Korea. The excerpt published in a Korean journal drove readers to fear for their sanity. That novel? That one is called Same Bed, Different Dreams. Almost the same title, yes, as this one, except for the comma.

Soon everyone is playing a game called Juryungu, a drinking game with dice, at the insistence of the South Korean consul general who has sponsored Echo’s trip. The die has 14 sides, not all of them even, each marked with a different Chinese character, as it dates to before the invention of hangul, the Korean alphabet, as Echo confidently declares. There are six squares, eight triangles, and after rounds that involve Dance without a tune and Drink three glasses of wine, Sheen ends up with Reveal secret things. We don’t see his answer. Instead, it becomes what Sheen does for the rest of the novel.

On the train home afterward, Sheen pulls the shreds of his self-respect and purpose around him. He finds what he believes is the copy of The Sins someone gave him at the party. But it is Same Bed, Different Dreams, mysteriously finished and translated. Five communal dreams described in a cool and omniscient point of view, as if written by a committee. Sheen begins reading; soon, he finds, “the book drew me in, made me question which things were real and which invented…. I kept going, eyes gasping, as line by line Echo’s world replaced my own.”

Thus do we turn the page, and the next chapter begins, with another new font,



We enter Dream One with a doubled consciousness, reading as ourselves but also as Sheen reading the novel. The first dream is divided into numbered sections, 1 through 33. It describes the stories of the Korean Provisional Government’s founding. The characters here are well-known to Koreans—such as Syngman Rhee and the independence activist Thomas Ahn, Emperor Kojong and the poet Yi Sang—but this is a kind of dreamscape version of this group and this history, openly acknowledged as such.

In these sections, the tone is remote, omniscient, like reading intelligence reports on some of the gravest betrayals in Korean history. Here we have the vicious murder of Queen Min, beheaded by assassins sent by the Japanese government, her corpse burned after her death, and the Taft-Katsura agreement that Theodore Roosevelt made in 1905, giving Korea to Japan in order to “modernize” it (yes, this meant “colonize it”)—an effort to appease an increasingly powerful Japan, to forestall and maybe even prevent the eventual threat Japan would pose to the United States. Korea was known for many years as the Hermit Kingdom, and Koreans set fire to American trading ships that reached its shores, as Park notes. And by the end of this third chapter, we see this may have been the correct response.

The following chapters cycle between these three stories, and the echoes across chapters illuminate obscure characters whose names change or mutate, characters at times revealed to have other older or newer identities. Eventually, we get Parker Jotter’s origin story, and we learn that the novel’s opening was most likely a scene from one of Jotter’s novels, 70 pages before we meet him. This cat’s cradle structure is hard to describe without spoiling the book, but one of the pleasures here is the way Park will include material like this that becomes significant later, leaving a seemingly invisible trail that later lights up like a string leading back across the dark. This is a novel with the thorough weave of a video game where all of the NPCs become important somehow. A game no one might ever design except maybe, just maybe, Parker Jotter.

It’s not just that you’re being told secret knowledge, but you’re being admitted to a secret circle. The true and the fictional blend, as the different parallel fictions do, until the novel has the feeling of a production by one of those traveling Shakespeare companies with just a few actors who take on all of the many different roles—but on a vast world-altering scale.

What is history? The question vanishes for a while before returning, a leitmotif at first and then a central obsession. You may notice pieces are missing from the real history of this struggle that you may almost want to insert here. But the novel isn’t meant to be taken as a history; it is meant to challenge American and Korean and Korean American readers with what they think they know about their country, whatever they think that is. When Park asks as his novel begins, “What is history?” he could as easily ask, What is history to you?

This elusive and labyrinthine vision feels right even as it feels like a trespass, but a trespass on what, I would be hard-pressed to say. It is not quite accurate to describe Same Bed Different Dreams as a novel about Korean history, since so much of it is set in America and is about America. Some of its most tantalizing moments are drawn from little-known episodes in this joint history, stories like Marilyn Monroe’s visit to Korea to perform for the USO during the war, or Ronald Reagan’s starring role in the 1954 film Prisoner of War as an agent undercover at a North Korean reeducation camp, “pretending to renounce America and embrace communism.” Much of what feels the strangest in the novel turns out to be true, if you look it up.

Parker Jotter becomes the author of the series of unsuccessful science-fiction novels that eventually achieve cult success thanks to the efforts of Daisy Oh and Loa Ding, well before their meetings with Cho Eujin. We’re in both Jotter’s future and Sheen’s past now. Jotter’s novels make their way into the Korean Provisional Government’s dream chapters as well. By the time we reach the discovery of Jotter’s archives, including a guide to writing called Wildwording, you may or may not remember this is the same name as the institution that granted tenure to Soon Sheen’s friend Monk Zingapan, mentioned back in the second chapter. GLOAT might even be the company having the all-hands meeting in Chapter 1, or is it an entity named Harmony Holdings? Are they the same? The cat’s cradle becomes a corset. What does it all mean?

Is it possible that Park’s novel is a device meant to aid in the reunification of Korea by recruiting every reader into his dream state version of the Korean Provisional Government? Maybe. Or does it just describe that reunification as it is already happening? Are we all living in a simulation controlled by Koreans and Korean Americans, intent on rescuing their country? It may be that I can’t tell you, and even if I did, you wouldn’t believe me. And what country would that be, anyway? Only time will tell. You’ll just have to read the novel to figure it out. It’s an attempt to inscribe a future wholeness, a single unified Korea, even if the path to that goal there doesn’t seem clear or even possible.

Park’s novel appeared in the fall amid an unprecedented wave of Korean American fiction in 2023, at least 35 titles. If that isn’t the work of the Korean Provisional Government, I don’t know what is.