John Pistelli

writer

Eugene Lim, Dear Cyborgs

Dear CyborgsDear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The novel, unfortunately, waits until we have gotten the point before it decides to explain itself:

 

(When I say cyborgs, of course I mean us.)

[…]

(Some seem unaccepting of this transformation, and it indeed has been gradual. In a sense it began when the first simple machines were invented. But now, to deny the change requires a willful ignorance since, if you observe bodies clothed in steel flowing over highways, or how we’ve outsourced half our memory to these devices, these exobrains we carry around, and if you note how even our most intimate relationships occur remotely, at great distances from one another, if you see all this, well, it isn’t such an original observation, dear cyborgs, to say that human and machine have long ago merged inexorably.)

It isn’t an original observation at all; happily, it is, despite the title, not primarily what Dear Cyborgs is about. The cyborgean reference justifies the novel’s form—a social-media-age collage of voices, of genres, and of fictions—but its theme is announced on the first page, in the first of a recurring set of exhortations that seem to belong less to the Twitter epoch than to that of pirate radio (I think of Lynne Thigpen in The Warriors: “Hey there, boppers…”):

Dear Cyborgs,

Today’s puzzler. Enforced inescapable automatic insidious complicity. On the horizon no viable just alternative and no path toward one. All proposals thus far fanciful, impossible, doomed. Sure, optimism of the will. But—either from the towers or beyond the grid, in the trenches, amongst the ruins, or burb’d—what to do?

Yours most truly,

The absent signature signifies the lack of a clear agent (Marx’s industrial proletariat, Mao’s anti-imperialist peasantry) who might effect The Revolution, while the allusion to the first half of Gramsci’s famous phrase (“optimism of the will”) recalls the missing second half (“pessimism of the intellect”) that will animate the novel. In short, as nineteenth-century authors like Melville or Dickinson knew they could no longer justify Christian faith but berated the empty vault of heaven anyway, so the twenty-first-century writer understands that Marxism is no longer intellectually tenable or honorably practicable within the First World but keeps gesturing plangently toward the space on the historical horizon where utopia was to appear. Why, by the way, is Marxism no longer tenable or practicable? Because, as another character in this novel explains, we have replaced Marxism’s implicit teleological and humanistic model of the world with a chaotic and naturalistic one:

“The problem is that history is not a dialectic progression but a biome, a swamp where ideas chase each other around and wallow and where drupelets of their larvae cluster and then hatch to devour siblings.”

Twice in this short book we encounter the ubiquitous slogan, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” Slavoj Žižek’s popularization of Fredric Jameson’s paraphrase of H. Bruce Franklin’s gloss on J. G. Ballard. As with the Gramsci tag, we are the realm of what might look to outsiders like leftist kitsch, but with my reference to Ballard we come around to what Dear Cyborgs is really about. To approach it obliquely: I was perusing a collection of testimonials from the protests about grad-student labor at Yale and found this arresting statement:

It’s hard to relate (without lapsing into cliché) the particular pleasures, the rough loveliness, of collective action—but when solidarity is enacted so forcefully in the bodies of a marching mass of workers, a strange thing happens. Your consciousness of yourself, and what you do and think and intend and contribute is broken open for a moment; you vibrate with the thrill of the group, emboldened to scream louder, walk longer, be looser and more uninhibited—but also sharply attentive. You start to feel the crowd’s little ecstasies and confusions; you’re moved, for the thousandth time, by its visual extravagance. And you relish its implicit menace. The banner at the front of the march, held aloft by people who had, until a few days ago, refused to eat, read JUST THE BEGINNING, YALE. It’s a good motto; I like its seizure of the future.

I will not mock this because I have felt what it describes—I remember turning around at the crest of a rise in the road during the worldwide protests against the Iraq war in the winter of 2003 (also referenced in Dear Cyborgs) and seeing 3000 people at my back; I experienced the transport elaborated in the quotation above; it was as if we could keep marching clear into the sky. But consider the tacit admission in this statement: what is left of the agency of The People in the absence of any widespread faith that we can ever merge with the historical dialectic is simply a feeling of intensity and authenticity. As in Ballard (or DeLillo or Tom McCarthy or, perhaps [here I tread more carefully given his actual experience], Bolaño), this feeling is what Eugene Lim’s characters are seeking even after the faith that supported it has gone. Their concern to be free of “[e]nforced inescapable automatic insidious complicity” is the desire for pure experience, and the key word in that train of adjectives is surely “automatic”: we may be cyborgs, but how can we avoid becoming automata? Lim’s characters—none of whom I remember though I read the novel yesterday; all are cyphers, vessels for ideas—answer either by joining political protests or making (or, in the novel’s genre-parodying metafictions, inhabiting) certain kinds of artworks, either the world-destroying via negativa of the avant-garde or the world-making sublimity of popular fiction (detective/noir, SF, superhero comics).

The marketing of Dear Cyborgs makes too much of the comic book connection. It does begin as if it were Kavalier & Clay or Oscar Wao (neither of which I admire, the latter of which I never even got through, even though I too was reared on Superman and Batman and science fiction in an immigrant milieu), a first-generation bildungsroman for which superhero comics provide the model of bildung. The narrator and his friend Vu, the only Asian-Americans in their small midwestern town, bond over their love of comics and other nerderia in the novel’s opening episodes. But such a linear, realist narrative is soon enough abandoned; Lim, with his critique of capitalist complicity, allows his narrator to make knowing remarks about the literary commodification of identity politics that characterizes the type of novel Dear Cyborgs refuses to be (“‘What was expected was a slightly modified coming-of-age novel that traded on my Korean-American identity'”), and we are offered instead, after the first chapter, a series of monologues and adventures about artists, activists, aliens, superheroes, and detectives. As I said, none of the characters have much existence beyond their idea-laden soliloquies, but Lim’s inventiveness, his profusion of concept and imagery on page after page, keeps the novel going in the absence of realist pleasures. The novel refuses to dispel its mysteries either by committing to its science-fictional scenario or giving a real-world explanations for those extravagances, though it flirts with both. These may be spoilers, but then again, I don’t think it matters: at the novel’s conclusion, we are told that Dear Cyborgs may be a webcomic created by Vu and the narrator, and also that it may be a Borgesian infinite book written by Vu’s father.

Like the cyborg conceit, none of this is quite new (except perhaps the implicit rebuke, not unlike this one, to the Chabon/Díaz-style narrative); even the melding of superheroes with high theory has been done before in comics, and I was reminded at times of Daniel Clowes’s psychoanalysis-inflected “Black Nylon” or Grant Morrison’s Situationist autocritique in The Invisibles. The novel’s more realist passages, commenting on our everyday lives in the totalizing world of what the comrades call “late capitalism,” is well-observed and bleakly funny—a hospital employee’s quest amid shifting cafeteria business plans to find somewhere to spend her lunch hour is particularly good—but it does owe a great deal to DeLillo, as does the whole theme of seeking an exit from “automatic complicity” through sublime aesthetic experience. Lim’s anatomy of all the forms complicity takes, though, is his dead-end Marxism’s gift to his aesthetic, a political incisiveness (as in a long, complex passage near the end of the novel about Richard Aoki) that is well beyond most other late-modern bards of anti-capitalist aesthetics, including DeLillo (whose influence, anyway, is no doubt all over my own work too).

Aesthetically, I enjoy the novel’s monologic structure—even amid the superheroics, Dear Cyborgs is a set of speeches, a neo-Dostoevskean device common in twenty-first-century fiction, including my own, but done beautifully here. Supra-aesthetically, I am impressed by the novel’s integrity. “‘I was excited by the news of riot, but then I had to go to work,'” observes one of Lim’s characters. The admission of excitement on every page, supervening as it does any more moralistic claims about justice, is what made Dear Cyborgs one of the few contemporary novels I have recently felt compelled to finish. I am infinitely more of a cynic than Lim appears to be—I no longer even slightly believe in the myth of the The Revolution and have in fact come to find it wholly pernicious, nor do I think it is capitalism that oppresses us rather than merely life itself—but, even so, I felt on reading this book that I had lifted my lantern and found an honest man.

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