There’s a point in Eugene Lim’s slim, haunting new novel,Dear Cyborgs, where the cyborgs finally reveal themselves. They are not, it turns out, cybernetic crime-fighters or machine killers with human hearts and laser blaster hands.
“When I say cyborgs, of course I mean us,” Lim writes, laying bare what lies at the crux of his project, an unusual book now drawing the sorts of critical accolades that should vault him into the first rank of American writers. The New Yorker and New York magazine were laudatory. Jonathan Lethem said the novel blew him away.
“It’s a little surreal. I was very surprised,” Lim, 43, tells the Voice. “I had written two other novels and been involved in the small-press world, running my own small press, Ellipsis Press. Small presses in a lot of ways do the main work of literature. It’s difficult for unusual or innovative books to get through the gatekeepers of New York publishing these days. I was very happily surprised to get through.”
Lim, a librarian at Hunter College High School, grew up in small-town Ohio and now lives in Queens. His two previous novels, Fog & Car (2008) and The Strangers (2013), garnered critical acclaim but remained decidedly out of the mainstream. And Dear Cyborgs, as Lim points out, is not an obvious candidate for a breakthrough. Plot is exchanged for ideas, images, and monologues. In one sense, the book is autobiographical, the story of an unnamed narrator and his friend Vu growing up in Ohio, the only Asian Americans in town, “such outcasts that our isolation hardly pained us, as we could barely conceive of the alternative.”
Vu and the narrator are obsessed with comic books, and Dear Cyborgs is interspersed with the stories of heroes and villains they apparently invent. There is Frank Exit, a martial-arts expert and author of a short-story collection; Muriel, a social worker and poet who discovered, on her thirty-fifth birthday, that she was a foundling extraterrestrial with the powers to fly, walk through walls, and shoot energy beams from her hands; and Dave, a frustrated artist who’s “very good with a slingshot.” Their archnemesis, the cheekily named Ms. Mistleto, kidnaps the children of diplomats for ransom demands including a worldwide single-payer healthcare system and a tax on all securities transactions. Rather than simply terrorize, she relates to Frank her former life as a mother who occupied an office building during a mass uprising and lost everything.
But Lim does not indulge in genre fiction or even in anything like Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, a magical-realist take on gentrifying Brooklyn and superhero mythos. In the vein of Watchmen, Dear Cyborgs suggests dressing up in costumes to slay baddies is beside the point.
More pressing for these characters are the twin constrictions of capitalism and technology and what it means, in this cybernetic age, to protest. Dear Cyborgs is a product of Occupy Wall Street — Lim wrote most of the book in response to the currents buffeting Barack Obama’s second term — and dwells on the hope and failure of mass movements. Blending autofiction with more surrealistic flourishes, Lim imagines violent protests in San Francisco against Silicon Valley’s economic and cultural dominance.
“I just got obsessed with the political climate,” Lim says. “We seemed paralyzed when it came to dealing with certain issues. As a state, we were unable to deal with climate change, economic inequality, and state violence.”
A child of the Seventies and Eighties, Lim became increasingly fixated on the idea that his was the last generation to grow up without the internet. A divide opened between those born into the new world and everyone who came before, like the men and women who could remember wars fought with Gatling guns instead of atomic weapons.
“We’ve entered into this moment where technology has this great effect on us,” Lim says. “One aspect of this change is the questioning of protest — how possible it is, how effective it is, how to go about it in a manner that is more pure or less complicit. A lot of mass movement protests don’t seem to be working as they once have.”
Nor is narrative, Lim argues, absorbed as it once was, thanks to technology. “We don’t access story in the same way.”
In Dear Cyborgs, Lim’s narrator observes that “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 long ago merged inextricably.”
Lim’s unconventional approach was honed at Stanford, where he studied under the novelist and poet Gilbert Sorrentino, known for postmodern romps grounded in his native Brooklyn. After college, Lim worked in publishing in New York but didn’t enjoy it. He eventually went back to school to become a librarian and later founded Ellipsis, which publishes a few titles a year.
Lim finds his writing is enhanced by the glut of information he encounters daily. “As a small librarian, you are a generalist. You are covering everything in terms of acquisitions and ordering. It feels like the whole world has to come through you when you’re ordering for a library.”
Beyond meditating on ontological questions in the smartphone age, Dear Cyborgs is preoccupied with an Asian-American experience often overlooked in literature. Lim’s characters, in crisp DeLillo-esque monologues, sketch portraits of figures like Tehching Hsieh, a Taiwanese-American performance artist who, among many feats, punched a time clock once every hour for a year, photographing himself at each punch-in for a short film. Another character describes the life of Richard Aoki, an Asian-American activist who climbed the ranks of the Black Panthers and was later suspected of being an FBI informant. As a child, Aoki was locked away in Franklin Roosevelt’s internment camps.
“Aoki’s story is haunting and important,” Lim writes, “because it is such an American story in that it tells the tale of a particular kind of passing….Aoki is a character buffeted and tossed by hurricanes of history — the internment camps, Panthers, Hoover — but one who nevertheless tries to be a person of conviction, even as those convictions adjust to turbulent circumstance.”
Lim thinks often about the wave of Asian immigrants who came to America after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 abolished the country’s racist quota system. Among them were his parents, physicians who bounced among lonely American towns searching for a foothold in this new, alien country.
Lim recently addressed a group of high school students and was struck by how much had changed since he was their age. Back then, an Asian-American adult almost inevitably had an accent, having grown up in China, Taiwan, or Korea. But here he was, part of a new generation: Americans in full. “That second wave is slowly coming into power, coming of age, writing their stories,” Lim says. “Also the gatekeepers, the editors, the reviewers, the showrunners — that second generation who’s born here, as they come of age, there’s an explosion of Asian-American narratives now happening.”