Double Take: What Superheroes Talk About on Their Time Off
Eugene Lim’s latest novel is a fascinating intersection of philosophy and sci-fi
Note: Double Take is a literary criticism series wherein a book goes toe-to-toe with two authors as they pick apart and discuss its innermost themes, its successes and failings, trappings and surprises. In this edition, Rosie Clarke and JW McCormack go in-depth with Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs.
Rosie Clarke: Let’s chat on Hangouts!
John McCormack: Yes, sorry, hi! I’m so simpleminded I can’t drive my module. Or remember how to use messenger.
RC: It’s all good! There’s something very Microsoft about Google Hangouts that sets my teeth on edge.
JMC: Do you want to do chat another way?
RC: Is the old Gchat still running? I know they’re phasing it out. I mean this is fine.
JMC: I sort of thought this was Gchat.
RC: It is, as in, Gchat is dead: Long live Google Hangouts.
JMC: That’s right. Now, on top of our confusion about Gchat vs. Talk vs. Hangouts is the fact that I had thought that we would be having a live conversation; instead, we were supposed to write one another a series of emails. I think this series of misunderstandings has brought us here; as well, the wonky platform we’re using underscores a key theme of Dear Cyborgs.
RC: Yes, for me the book feels like a series of monologues, one-sided conversations, with no clear recipient or audience. I found it very hard to connect with what was going on at times. Even the actual conversations that occur are quite alienating. I think the intimacy characters feel with one another aren’t shared by the reader, mainly due to a lack of character development, but we can come back to that. Did you have the same response?
JMC: Right! I suspect this is a situation where we think the same thing but feel differently about it. To your first point, I certainly “a series of floating monologues” is a good way to define the novel’s structure. The characters aren’t actually speaking (at least not entirely) nor is what they’re talking about the basis of the story. It’s a little like Godard’s whispered intrusions in his late 60s movies and a little like the radio writer Joe Frank. But let’s go back to the ‘story,’ the initial premise. How would you describe it?
RC: In part, it’s a memoir, a series of nostalgic recollections about growing up and sharing the kind of closeness with a friend that only comes from a shared sense of alienation. And when that closeness is severed, it echoes that sense of being haunted by its absence. On the other hand, it’s a series of meditations on protest, resistance, the purpose of art as a creative force, commerce. So the “novel,” the connecting thread, is an attempt by the narrator to capture or recapture this significant friendship. The meditations are more like short stories, sometimes even manifestos, conveying messages I feel are not entirely realized.
I was certainly mislead by the superhero element!
JMC: Oh, let’s about that superhero element. Frank Exit is a superhero fighting the machinations of his nemesis, Miss Mistleto, throughout the city. In the meantime, he hangs out in karaoke bars with his artist friends, Muriel and Dave. The superhero chapters alternate with chapters that detail the story of a Vietnamese immigrant named Vu, who moved away when the narrator was a child but who resurfaces near the end of the novel and proposes that he and the narrator collaborate on a series of comic books, which would seem to explain the superhero content, right?
Except all of that — and I’ve left out the postcards addressed to, Dear Cyborgs, popping up throughout — is just a frame to explore the themes you mentioned: ideas of art and resistance.
RC: I feel like using superheroes as mouthpieces for socio-political commentary is a clever move by Lim, I just wasn’t expecting it, but probably because I’m conditioned by the kind of superhero-centric content I consume predominantly being provided by the MCU and D.C., where any discussion of politics is, shall we say, not subtle.
JMC: Oh, you mean inasmuch as the mutants of the X-Men are standing in for minorities or how Iron Man fights Captain America in a kind of explosive Bush administration dumb-show?
But I think that Lim’s goals here are to illustrate every variety of adjacency. Adjacency being a force more powerful than love.
Art is certainly adjacent to consumption, just as it is the passing of strangers and the miracle of chance encounter — probably central to every work of literature, but usually not taken as a central feature as it is here — is what turns us into people. As though personhood is a thing that seeps like a ghost through crowds.
That’s what I take from the part where a character is talking about how he likes to “ghost.”
“Now human exchange has been reduced to transaction… I’d test it out quite literally. I’d go to the busiest plaza, the most packed rooms, the jammed streets. And I’d stand just to the side, next to the thoroughfare or just against the jostle of bar bodies in Brownian motion. And the world would revolve around me, even, it felt, flow through me.”
“We’d pass by each other untouched.”
That’s what it is to be a cyborg, right? It’s a super-modern condition where we’re an audience plugged into every conceivable entertainment, including our own lives, but at a considerable distance.
RC: Yes, absolutely, and the postcards that punctuate the chapters are directed at us. They’re very tongue-in-cheek, but vaguely threatening, and sometimes nonsensical in a way that makes me think that some sort of A.I. or algorithm wrote them, which would make sense in the context. And I think the distance that’s inherently connected to our state as “cyborgs” is apparent in the book itself; rather than pulling you into an intimate, absorbing narrative, the reader is constantly being kept at arm’s length, confounded, turned around. And the notion of ghosts and ghosting that you mention are recurring themes. The narrator feels haunted by Vu; the “villain” Ms Mistleto appears and disappears; we ourselves feel like ghosts observing conversations from behind a kind of veil of disconnection.
JMC: I think we are invited to view narrative art with suspicion. Maybe I’m imagining things, but I think I caught a bitter joke at the expense of Italo Calvino and the kind of, you know, primacy of art and the nobility of reading that we all pay lip service to while knowing that, at most, we are “parasites signaling to other parasites.”
I mean it in the way Frank Exit mentions that he lost his book and we expect he’s going to go on losing his book while only getting part of the way in like in If on a winter night’s a traveler. Instead, his friend just turns up and says, “By the way, here’s your book.”
There’s a long quote near the beginning that’s worth trying to parse because it seems like the thing we’re being dared to challenge throughout —
“However, there may be a sliver of protest still possible, which you may rightfully accuse of being worse, a reactionary or collaborative tactic which I nonetheless think is the only possible defiance left outside of the terminal possibilities of suicide, the morally corrupting option of guerrilla warfare, or the subtly but fundamentally distinct choice of utter acquiescence. This alone-possible and admittedly vaporous defiance is merely to live and accept one’s culpability but try without going into heroics to participate minimally as a parasite does, getting one’s needs and not much more, not often much more.One tries then to touch only lightly the general degradation but also to become no longer concerned with it. One becomes accepting of powerlessness, is rendered complacent and mute, but tries nonetheless to signal other like-minded parasites, not in order to gather and foment rebellion, which would be too grandiose a goal, but simply so as to provide reflection, the mirage or actuality of company, that is, simply to make known one’s kind’s existence as a remaining possibility. In the end this contemptible character I’ve sketched, the artist, is all that remains of the initial quest for purity.”
That is, the artist recognizes the base-level un-livability and outrage of the culture as it is. But rather than do the usual thing and claim that art is transformative on a mass scale, Lim’s artist serves to broadcast one’s existence as a remaining, but not redemptive, option.
That’s the dilemma that all the various dialogues seem to be picking up from different angles.
RC: Very Camus-esque — laying oneself open to the indifference (or in this case, hostility) of the world, and in that acceptance lies the impetus to go on despite it all.
JMC: It’s so immediate. Galvanizing, palpable. Maybe that’s why I was more forgiving of the fact that the characters are often little more than mouthpieces, the super-heroics little more than self-aware, coy line drawings penciled in around the monologues that make up the bulk of the book. Because Lim anticipates, and indeed problematizes, our impatience with the escapist literary norm.
RC: Yes, returning to your earlier comment about art’s adjacency to consumption, I think that in Dear Cyborgs, art is more than adjacent — Lim represents art as intrinsically connected to commerce, even when the artist sets out to create something impossible to value. I’m thinking of the character Sonny Rhee, who “allowed only twelve of her paintings to exist at any one time… What this meant was that when she finished a new painting, she would burn her oldest one”, and buyers have to buy all twelve paintings in the understanding that eventually, all of them will have been burned and replaced by different works. Of course, the irony is she’s hugely successful, albeit temporarily, because that kind of gimmick is highly sellable.
The reason is Lim’s focus on capitalism and its machinations, and whether protest and demonstration are viable methods of resistance, or just shouting inside an echo chamber or, worse, into the void, or if by creating a painting with the purpose of destroying it one is feeding the function of art as capital rather than rejecting it, because through that destruction you’re acknowledging its value.
JMC: I am so glad you brought the Sonny Rhee part up. I felt like I was going to have a difficult time re-capping it, but it’s one of my favorite episodes.
RC: Likewise, it’s one of my favorite parts.
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JMC: In a way, it’s the most lucid book I’ve read lately. All the books I’ve related to lately have basically brought up the question(s) — what are we doing here? What are we party to? What is desirable? What is apt, given that the correct socio-political view is the horrified, baffled, fearful, woke one?
Another good joke: When the book entitled Dear Cyborgs appears, the narrator asks what it is and the answer is —
“A program, a drug uploaded through your eyeballs, an idea virus. Techincally, a bio-based cybernetic machine to collapse space-time, or psychosomatically one that activates clairvoyance, or, more poetically: a time machine. If you read it, you can know the future or the past.”
“Just kidding. It’s my autobiography, kind of. My life story, but fictionalized.”
We have at our command, a vast vocabulary of information, knowledge, points of reference and affinities. We can cross-reference science fictional concepts, apply classical storytelling modes to comic books and dissect the Barthesian content of midnight movies, with uncanny skill and speed. We’ve successfully banished all notion of high and low art. It’s hard to believe what a slight comfort it all is. And when we look hard for something pure, “the initial quest,” what do we find but the market, which we know reinforces all the very destructive tendencies we set out to oppose.
Thus, I think, the book’s plot/character elements are tinfoil recreations. To pretend otherwise would to be giving the lie to Lim’s whole project. It would be too comforting to develop these phantoms according to our expectations.
Because what good have our expectations done anybody lately?
Frank’s sister appears drunk at a gallery, railing at her brother’s hypocrisy because she believed in his artistry but now seems to have recognized him as a parasite. She states the case thusly: “Now we’re all Icarus. Cyborgs with our wings. An augmented reality. The Cassandra warnings forgotten. And it’s always on, always simultaneous: the soaring and the panic, spasm and grace, flight and fall. Burn it to the ground. Burn it to the motherfucking ground.”
RC: Fiction that responds to the sense of a societal malaise and directionlessness that isn’t sci-fi, or dystopian fiction, is much more interesting to me, and Dear Cyborgs does feel distinct in that way.
I think it speaks to the questions you posited — what are we doing here? What are we party to? What is desirable, what is apt — which are very specific, unanswerable questions, or perhaps the answers are unwanted in a way.
The chapter where Ms. Mistleto recounts her experiment in “alternative living” arising from a protest which turns into the occupation of a skyscraper, in an attempt to “refashion the occupation… and make it into a utopian colony founded on principles of equality, collective decision making, cooperative labor, and shared property.” Of course, like Sonny’s attempt to disengage art from capital, this project fails, and the occupiers give up and leave. The violent desperation of the protest, a cry out for something better, is inevitably cooled to a gradual acceptance of the status quo. I think that’s a fear a lot of us have at the moment, that the strength of our current convictions are insufficient to overthrow whatever powers we oppose. And when I think too much on that I do see Frank’s sister’s point — is there a way to fix this?
JMC: That’s another great sequence — that occupied skyscraper.
Well, the novel is kind enough to include its own source code at the end. The narrator reunites with Vu and devise their project —
“Superheroes going out to lunch complaining to their therapists, unsure about their parenting styles. A chase scene where the driver and his passenger, while making split-second decisions, talk about different forms of resistance to power. A murder mystery where the detective receives a call at the crime scene from her father and she tells him her theories about the history of suicide protests around the world, analyses of madness and megalomania versus desperate agency, and the dangers of aestheticizing violence.”
That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about in this book, right?
Think about the example of Richard Aoki, which gets a good amount of ink. A radical Asian-American comrade of the Black Panthers outed after his death as an FBI informant!
RC: Yes —
“[T]his utterly and helplessly American character: the secret and self-elected perpetual foreigner modulating between a double and triple identity.”
JMC: I think Lim’s answer would be adjacency. Accident and adjacency. We accomplish a surprising amount merely by existing as living records of our parents’ mistakes and the betrayal of our national ideals.
JMC: I kn0w. I’m thinking of the fact that, if I remember correctly, when Vu vanishes, he leaves our narrator with a text, right? Is it the text inherited from his father?
RC: That’s correct — it’s a book — and the narrator initially hides it without reading it.
JMC: Well, that’s the hope then: the unread, unwritten book.
It’s the book Frank Exit loses, bookmarked with arcane postcards inscribed with these kind of Buddhist koans… or in the sort of overheard conversations that percolate throughout the novel without adding up to a traditional narrative or scene.
That’s adjacency — the absorbed, the witnessed, the incidental insight that fails to add up to a coherent world view…and yet, one of these days…like when Bowie sings —
“one day I’m going to write a poem or a letter/ one day, I’m going to get the faculty together”
RC: And so maybe our biggest act of resistance is to resist the compulsive urge to make sense of the senseless, the ambiguous, the ghosts, which I can see now was perhaps my mistake when approaching the book initially. Rather than possessing and consuming, we should witness, be grazed by, be passed through by phantoms.
JMC: I think it is rare to encounter self-aware, genre-spliced postmodernism that is this worldly and purposeful, or pop that is this utilitarian, serious and searching, or timely state-of-the-nation reckonings that are this optimistic, open, and kindhearted. The union of seeming opposites, co-existing across 163 pages is, for me, a reason to be cheerful.
RC: You’ve converted me. I came into this feeling somewhat negative about the book, but I think I allowed myself to be swayed by a misconception going in, or wanting it to be something different. I think to write a book about immigrant experience that isn’t about immigrant experience, about superheroes that skews their whole purpose, and about capitalism and resistance that doesn’t succumb to bright-eyed idealism or weary cynicism is quite an achievement.
JMC: Agreed. An expansive about-ness that is nonetheless the story of a mind, an experience, a moment. The miracle is that we have the power to transmit these things — it’s not a solipsistic vision at all! Cyborgs are capable of that crucial crossing-over on waves of air. I guess we should end with a quote, almost randomly chosen —
“Someone said we can weaponize our invisibility, our outcast status, by converting it into anonymity. We may do that. The point is we’re out of here. It’s the only escape. The rest is lying to yourself. That’s what we’ve decided. And we’re tough. We can do it. But we have to keep it lean and mean. Just us and on the run and slash and burn.
“IS there another way> Maybe there’s not even this way. The culpability and embeddedness so tight and inextricable.
“We’re going to make a perfect sand painting, a masterpiece ice sculpture — and then suicide pact our way into history I mean oblivion.”
“Muriel is actually a foundling extraterrestrial sent from a far superior civilization (…) I’m a mere Earthling, and therefore far less inherently powerful, but I’ve mastered various physical disciplines and martial arts as well as having proven myself in battle with a certain tactical wiliness, which seems to impress. Despite these accomplishments, as you no doubt will notice, I tend to be depressed and anxious much of the time.”