Eugene Lim’s Uncanny Sense of What It’s Like to Be Alive Right Now

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His writing is transfixing from page to page, filled with digressive meditations on small talk and social protest, superheroes, terrorism, the art world, and the status of being marginal. A supervillain spends an entire standoff talking about the Shanghainese meal she had after going down to Occupy Wall Street for the first time—“to be near a moment that would exist only briefly, so that we could embody the flicker of their protest, a protest that seemed dangerous, that seemed real.” It all seems quite random, yet there’s an intoxicating, whimsical energy on every page. In “Dear Cyborgs,” fragments of Asian-American history pop up every now and then. Lim, who works as a librarian at Hunter College High School, is the author of “Fog & Car” and “The Strangers,” novels that flexed his fragmentary and quietly unnerving style. But Lim’s novel feels more like a meditation on the possibility and virtue of protesting forces that feel overwhelming—of our capacity to tell meaningful stories about ourselves when we feel like the outcome is preordained. Speculative fiction has long been a space unusually hospitable to writers of color, from the Afro-futurist epics of Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler to the award-winning short stories of Ted Chiang. It’s natural to wonder, especially if you are a minority, whether any part of their authorial perspective, rich with visions of liberation and a different tomorrow, was informed by their position in society. But soon—and rather abruptly—“Dear Cyborgs” widens this sensation of noticing that which is hidden in plain sight. After a while, it becomes clear that what propels the novel isn’t an overarching plot or a conspiracy but anecdotes, episodes, and fantastical interludes that point to the book’s guiding ethos. The novel follows two young Asian-American boys growing up in a small town in Ohio. Nothing stays shocking for long. Resonances begin to emerge as everything, from radical art to political protest, gets absorbed into the rhythms of everyday life. By the end, Lim drops some clues as to how the novel’s various threads and universes fit together, but it’s hardly a climax. He spent 1978 in a small cage, in his studio; the following year, he punched a time clock every hour, on the hour. Art might not change the world, Hsieh later remarked, but it can at least “unveil life.” I kept wondering if moments like this were meant to suggest the unique contours and horizons of Asian-American life—to make those contours more palatable to those who have never looked from that perspective, or maybe even to make them universal. The protest movements of the past few years, such as Occupy or Black Lives Matter, seek ends that aren’t discrete. Many ambitious novelists will regard the deep divisions of the present and try to describe the substance, details, and passions of our times. But another voice, also unnamed, disagrees: “like dance, like music, a protest can be a religious ritual, too, one that needn’t be derisively looked down upon as magical thinking, but a spiritual act where the act itself is the goal…. And, at first, their story dwells inside this marginal space, a private friendship with its own shorthand and codes. From Asian-American adolescence, we zoom out to another world, where off-duty superheroes hang out at karaoke bars, swapping stories about performance art and their arch-nemesis—a terrorist whose demands include “single-payer universal health care, mandatory carbon caps, nuclear disarmament, paid yearlong parental leave, and a tax on all securities transactions.” Whether it’s meant to be the future or some parallel dimension, the concerns of these superheroes are very similar to ours. Paragraphs from a different story begin interrupting this Midwestern coming-of-age tale. They’re just on the cusp of their teens—a deeply impressionable time, when an unusually self-confident friend’s world view can easily become your own. An escape into a world where resolutions are neat and tidy—a world completely unlike this one. And this is what makes “Dear Cyborgs” feel so trippy. You can call it hokum if you wish, but for the protestor, the protest makes a moral world in which she can abide.” Lim is trying to do the same: to construct a world in which all of us might abide. The powers that be can’t negotiate with a feeling in the air, just as a writer can’t eke out an ending when the protagonists are all of us. It’s in his novel’s strange flights into fantasy, or its seemingly off-topic anecdotes about failed artists and revolutionaries, that we’re encouraged to imagine what it would have been like if our forebears had chosen an alternative future. There are no answers, just an uncanny sense of what it’s like to be alive right now: constantly distracted, bounding between idealism and cynicism, ever conscious of the fact that we may never bring the size and complexity of our world into focus. They are kindred outsiders who share a fascination with fantasy worlds, whether from comic books or from the far reaches of their own imaginations. I also wanted a better sense of where the story had taken me; it was impossible to imagine “Dear Cyborgs” finding any kind of resolution. His writing is confident and tranquil; he has a knack for making everyday life seem strange—or, in the case of “Dear Cyborgs,” for making revolution seem like the most natural thing possible. They’re invisible—a theme that runs through a lot of Asian-American literature. A superhero shows up at a karaoke bar and launches into a four-page monologue about the co-optation of the avant-garde and the “immense, stealthy powers” of money. “We were such outcasts that our isolation hardly pained us as we could barely consider an alternative,” Lim writes. And that sense of the erratic and tangential quality of everyday life—even if it’s displaced into a bizarre, parallel world—drifts off the page, into the world you see, after reading “Dear Cyborgs.” It reminded me of a moment, earlier on, when one of the superheroes described a pulpy novel he was reading as little more than “an instrument to pass the time.” Lim reproduces a few pages of it. After a visit to Zuccotti Park, one unnamed character cynically wonders if protest isn’t equal parts hope and guilt—perhaps the “expression of the impossible” is just about releasing some energy, a performative pledge to a lost cause. Eugene Lim’s writing is confident and tranquil; he has a knack for making everyday life seem strange—or, in the case of ”Dear Cyborgs,” for making revolution seem like the most natural thing possible.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY NING LI

I was a few pages from the end of Eugene Lim’s wondrous new novel, “Dear Cyborgs,” when I flipped back to the beginning and started again. In one scene, a character brings up the Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh, who embarked on a series of gruelling, yearlong performance pieces in the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties. “We journeyed through junior high on an entirely separate path from the others.” It’s as though the narrator and his friend, Vu, the son of Vietnamese refugees, are physically present in the world, yet are beholden to an altogether different plane of possibility. Even in solipsism, the subject can be moral. I wasn’t motivated only by a desire to stay longer in Lim’s bizarre yet familiar universe, though that was part of it. And yet Lim isn’t pessimistic.