Author photo by Ning Li
Cover design by Sarahmay Wilkinson
Eugene Lim is a singular voice in contemporary American literature—read one of his novels, and you'll never forget the stories, characters, and atmosphere he evokes in his quasi-dreamlike narratives. His first novel Fog & Car (Ellipsis Press, 2008) traces the diverging and converging paths of a recently divorced couple. The man settles into a quiet life in a small town while the woman starts anew in New York City, and the people who enter their post-marriage lives are not always as disconnected from their married lives as they may seem. In his second novel, The Strangers (Black Square Press, 2013), a larger cast of characters centers around various twins separated by geographical distance as well as starkly different worlds. His third novel, Dear Cyborgs (FSG Originals, 2017), is framed by the story of childhood friends who re-encounter each other later in life, and the stories within this frame consider spies, superheroes, and very pointed commentaries on protest and art. In all three novels, Lim explores resonances, coincidences, and links between characters that bring up questions of fate or otherworldly design. He carries over names between novels as well, so even though the novels seem to concern very different characters and worlds, there is a semblance of continuity that lingers.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Lim's novels is that the worlds he creates seem at once generic (with a timeless, universal quality) while also strongly rooted in contemporary political concerns. In his latest novel, Dear Cyborgs, for instance, the characters reference South Korean activist Kim Jin-suk who famously spent a year on top of a construction crane; Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden; the Occupy movement in the United States; and the large scale anti-war protests during the build-up to and start of the second Iraq/Gulf War. Lim also includes Asian American characters and narrators regularly in his novels though the plots and themes generally engage obliquely, maybe allusively, with more traditional narratives of racialization. Overall, at least for me as a reader, Lim's novels also present a haunting atmosphere that treads on possible supernatural elements without tipping over into outright horror or fantasy. We are excited to talk to the author about his writing and working life in the interview that follows.
Kartika Review: Dear Cyborgs includes a number of monologues by various characters on topics such as cafeterias and restaurants; avant-garde art and the business or marketplace of art; ghostwriting; protest movements; and more. Each monologue is thoughtful and deeply considered. How did you choose these topics for inclusion, and what kind of research did you do to think through some of the ideas you bring up?
Eugene Lim: In many ways this was not a book that was planned out. I was surprised myself to find that I was writing a book with political themes. Mostly the topics you mention were not researched at all, not in any formal or premeditated way, and they came about naturally, were topics I’d been almost involuntarily obsessing about. As well, I didn’t really have an outline or plot. I usually just write and then see if I can make it fit together later. In The Strangers, I’d started this habit you rightly identify of characters monologuing their story, and here, when a particular character took the stage to talk, inadvertently all this stuff I’d been obsessing about came out of their mouths... Well, sometimes it worked that way. Other times less so. I’d been reading and thinking about Tehching Hsieh and Richard Aoki for a long time, and I really wanted to bring them into the novel in bigger ways, especially Aoki, but it never seemed to work out. I would try, but it would always seem false or for whatever reason wouldn’t work. Then, late in the day, both managed to come in, even if for only small bits....
Right now I’m changing my view about the idea of “research,” which I’d previously avoid if not outright disdain, and its relation to the novel. I would really like to write a novel that somehow is a novel of a system rather than a novel of a character or characters—but for it not to be too theoretical, too impersonal. I doubt it can be done. We’re very acculturated to viewing novels through the avatar of a character. But my current ambition is to write somehow about the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965—the immigration legislation that allowed my parents and many first-generation Asian Americans to come to this country.
The things that had interested me about the novel as art were not necessarily the analyzing and logical assessments that can come with studying an issue or an aspect of history. Rather, I’d always thought myself more interested in how a writer performs a novel without any special knowledge but her understanding of narrative and language. Not that particular, specialized knowledge was anathema, just that I didn’t think it was important or necessary for what made the novel as art successful and special. Now, I’m not so sure, or I think this is, like most binary thinking, a useful but essentially false dichotomy.
KR: Dear Cyborgs starts with the reminiscences of the narrator on his childhood in a small town in the Midwest where he and his friend Vu were the only Asian American boys in their grade in school. This framing of the novel sets up some interesting ideas about racialization, growing up, and friendship. Although this section is told retrospectively when the narrator has grown up, it appears these may be the only children (as primary characters) in your fiction. How was it to write about childhood and these characters for you, and was anything different in how you conceive your adult characters?
EL: I’d never thought about it, but you’re probably right there haven’t been any major child characters. I’ll admit having a somewhat limited access to my own childhood memories. I’m not sure why, but my memories of young childhood, even that era before high school, is very very fuzzy. This erasure I’ve always theorized was due to the immigrant trauma I had to witness my parents going through, but it’s also true, as my wife will attest, that my memory in general of personal history is not great. I do have memories of friendships, however—their origins and histories and blood oaths and dissolutions. And I guess I thought I could take on the lens of childhood and write something genuine from that.
Prior to this book, whenever I thought I’d write a child character, the approach that came out was a smart ass, precocious kind of voice, probably greatly influenced by Delillo. Delillo’s child characters—as in Ratner’s Star for example but also in The Names—are usually hilarious because they are not children as much as they are proto-adults, or they’re like the wiseass id of adults allowed to momentarily speak. And I think I loved this voice so much that that’s how I thought, maybe a little unconsciously, I’d do a kid character. But in Dear Cyborgs there was an additional influence, as I was infringing upon or playing with a kind of traditional assimilation narrative... Inasmuch as it is traditional, I thought it would be strategic for it to be the book opener and for the voices to be relatively familiar and accessible (except for the few direct address parentheticals), so that a reader might be drawn into a more traditionally voiced and arc’d story—and then stick around for the more destabilizing or unusual elements that come after.
KR: I find your novels unsettling, even creepy in ways that are hard for me to pin down (the unsettlingness is a good thing, though, pleasurable in the way that good scary stories can be pleasurable). Do you think of yourself as a horror genre writer or perhaps consider the emotional state that your stories induce in your readers?
EL: This question throws me for a loop! I’ve never thought of myself as a horror writer or even as a writer of particularly creepy scenes. I actually sorta dislike the horror genre, simply from a personal perspective, meaning I’m a little squeamish, and because I don’t like really to be scared. And, especially in novels, I generally don’t like the mechanisms of “suspense.”
But maybe what you’re getting at, and what I do think is in my books, is an interest in pushing the boundaries of narrative, and the result may be an “uncanny” feeling. The books always foreground their fiction, and the books are not so much trying to be a reflection of reality but rather trying to admit to being an additional facet of the reality that we already have. So the uncanny might here result from a style that seems initially to be familiar, traditional storytelling but in fact has assumptions and effects that are very different, e.g. the artifice of the story is foregrounded, characters speak unnaturally, continuity is constantly broken, genre is not stable. In so far as I agree with the cliché that exceptional novels teach you how to read them, perhaps that destabilizing uncanny valley is also, to conflate two graph metaphors, the learning curve.
KR: All of your novels explore the idea of lost connections between siblings, friends, spouses and other acquaintances as well as the surprising reconnections or partial connections people make with each other throughout their lives. Especially in your second novel, you centralize this idea with a number of sets of twins who seem distanced from each other in their adult lives yet sometimes connected across space and time. This idea fascinates me (in part—because I'm a twin and also because as someone who has moved around the United States a few times and had to re-create my networks of close friends and experienced that loss of former friends through drifting apart). Can you talk a bit about what underlies this idea in your novels? Why do you return to it again and again?
EL: I’m not sure. I’ve experienced displacements similar to what you describe, but I’m not sure if that explains why it comes up so often in my writing. I think I do crave deep connections and intimacy, and I find, especially as I grow older, that relationships —and states of being—can be surprisingly fragile or temporary, even as they appear as fundamental to a person as their sense of identity… The Strangers in particular talks about the so-close-so-far-away element of human relationships. I think of it, too, as a Buddhist book in that it playfully (perhaps irresponsibly) explores ideas of Anattā and Śūnyatā, roughly pointing to a wow-man-trippy idea that I do subscribe to, i.e. the interdependence of being. Or, another way: there is something quite familiar in everyone, in all beings in fact, and yet, as we’ve each experienced, there is also a tremendous gulf between beings, an alienation. How and why does this contradiction operate? For whatever reason, this question has been for me a repeating concern.
KR: Dear Cyborgs features characters such as a super spy and an alien superhero (a foundling like Superman), and yet we only encounter them talking to each other at karaoke and lunch, recounting stories of their past about mostly mundane experiences of trying to find their ways as adults in a world of wars and protests. This approach reminds me a bit of the gag at the end of the Avengers movie with the various superheroes sitting around a small table at a small, casual eatery enjoying shawarmas. I'm intrigued by how this kind of focus casts such a different light on what might be seen as simply mundane. How did you come up with this narrative framing and approach?
EL: Even though I’ve loved comics, I really wasn’t interested in writing about superheroes except inasmuch as they were a genre convention (like noir or action movies) I might use to disguise, or upon which I could freight, less traditional narrative moves. In that sense I was happy to call them superheroes but avoid all the conventions of the genre. The shawarmas scene you mention also has precedents of course, and I think of the non-glam lives of the down-and-out characters in Alan Moore's Watchmen, or of the flip on the cosa nostra genre that occurs in The Sopranos when the patriarch has to go into talk therapy for his anxiety, that is, when he’s stripped of his genre conventions… One place I was interested, however, and where the superhero tropes lent themselves well to a book about the impossibility or possibility of protest, was in the neoconservative interpretation of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as justification for American Exceptionalism. I think this notion of exceptionalism is of course quite dangerous, and/but for the book, the following generalized question became crucial: For the protester, terrorist, or vigilante (superpowered or not), at what point is their cause consequential enough to defy the state?
KR: What is your daily work life like as a librarian at a high school? Do you find much connection between your day job and writing novels?
EL: One thing about working at the high school I work in, which is a wonderful school—it has its problems, but it’s a really exceptional place—is that kids give you hope. They are brilliant and sassy and work hard, and they have hope. This might be cheesy, but (and I’ll curse so you won’t think I’m sentimental) it’s fucking true. I remember the week after the election, the whole school had a day of service so I ended up sweeping up leaves and garbage in a park in Queens with a gaggle of teenagers. This act was gobs more therapeutic than all the internet rants and online petitions I’ve read since.
KR: You are also a publisher/editor at Ellipsis Press, which publishes experimental novels. What have you seen in manuscript submissions to the press that have most interested you (what makes something stand out)? And what is your favorite part of doing editorial work?
EL: In some ways I think my work at Ellipsis has been a failure. Not because the books I’ve published aren’t good. In fact I think they are exceptional, great and singular works of fiction. But there are two reasons I am unhappy with what I’ve done. The first is that my list is not very racially diverse. There are structural reasons for this, but in my small ways I’ve tried to recruit and solicit and find experimental fiction by POCs. And it has been very difficult. Partly I think that experimental fiction, even more than poetry in a way, has a high barrier to entry—though some of this is thankfully changing. But my poor excuses aside, I admit that my press reproduces the lack of diversity in both the small and large publishers of innovative fiction. If Ellipsis continues (and that too is a constant question), I hope to do better.
The other reason I feel the press is a bit of a failure, despite I think producing excellent work in beautiful editions, is that it is pretty difficult to get the books properly distributed without finding subsidizing money. Some small presses, like Dorothy and New York Tyrant and Two Dollar Radio, can do this—and they are amazing. Because I am stubborn in some particular ways and lazy in others, I’ve been unable to as successfully get my authors the recognition they deserve.... However, having said all that, I am very proud to have published these excellent writers. One thing editing and running the press has taught me is that great writing is actually quite rare. I used to think that there was a massive amount of it everywhere if only the corporate gatekeepers would get replaced by clear eyed aesthetes. But that isn’t what I’ve found to be the case. So my favorite part of editorial work is that moment of discovery, where one opens an unpublished manuscript by someone unknown—and despite the odds, the magic happens.