Dear Cyborgs

Author: Eugene Lim

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2017

I read it: February 2018

dear cyborgs

Sometimes you have to take a chance while browsing at the library, and the title, cover, and slim length of this book made it worth a shot. Was it worth it overall though?

Lim’s novel starts out with two Asian-American boys bonding over their love of comics, but they grow apart before they reach adulthood. There are hints of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao here, but only momentarily. The plot soon pivots to an adult narrator who is a sort of superspy filled with modern malaise. The chapters are episodic windows that sort of tie together a greater whole, and the book sums itself up in self-referential style:

These were old-fashioned moral tales disguised as science fiction. The stories revolved around the affairs of young technocrats who discovered that the mechanized times they’d created had, alas, made them, without their consent, no longer human.

It’s unclear who is writing the short notes that start with “Dear Cyborgs” at the beginning of each chapter, but by book’s end the author confirms that the cyborgs are us (or at least are the characters). As for the characters, I found them nearly impossible to distinguish, never sure if I was inside the head of one of the kids from the beginning of the book. I couldn’t even quite be sure of the gender POV of each chapter, given that most of the characters operated in a sort of shady cabal, alternated with humdrum cycles of sitting around talking. And talking. And talking.

On this point the author dovetails with the reader’s musings once again: “She talked the entire time… And I, too, was talking the whole time.” What do they talk about? Mostly our modern technological times: although it’s never quite stated, the setting of the book is more or less our own world, perhaps ever so slightly in the future. There’s mention of a leader whose “incompetence was less a state secret than an oddly effective ingredient of his charisma.” One character’s primary story is her outlining the time she abandoned her family to join a movement like Occupy Wall Street, and all the dashed vague hopes that came from it. They also talk a lot about art—there’s far too much musing on the role of the artist and the value (or not) of paintings. I suppose the author is connecting the “what is art?” question to the broader critiques of our cyborg society, but given the setting of the characters it remains too much of a university and upper-class concern to be of any interest to me.

In younger years I think I may have clicked with this book, which is apparently pieced together from stories the author had published as stand-alones beforehand. Some of the ever-so-slightly unrealistic elements seem to liven things up… until they undercut other intentions. For example, a footnote about Asian radicals in America is illuminating (and is another similarity to Oscar Wao), but in the context of the whole, when nothing else in the book is factual but rather a heavily fictionalized and overly analyzed veneer, I can’t even be sure that the names and events mentioned are real. This particular attempt to squeeze in a micro-history falls flat.

I finished the book because

it was short, and it really only took me a few hours to read. I finished the last page and stood up to stretch. An odd story, it was composed of many shorter, similar stories. If it was a confessional novel it was also a puzzle with a fractal structure, and it mutated and yet duplicated its shape by my changing focus and perspective on it.

This miniature reader’s guide that pops up in the last few pages is clever and brings the illusion of closure to this head-scratching book. I don’t think Lim is insincere in his intentions or in the writing itself, and there are plenty of little intellectual nuggets to mull over. But if I could have named a single character at the end and quickly summarized what he or she did or was trying to do, that probably would have helped. As it is, the work strikes me as one written by a cyborg. Almost cohesive, but with something not quite right at its center.

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