Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs is a novel of ideas, small, elegant ideas about art and protest, and one of the most striking literary works to emerge from the Occupy movement. (Poets like Juliana Spahr have so far excelled fiction writers in this category.) The cyborgs of the title are, of course, just us, gripping our prosthesis phones, speeding down the highways and through the air in aluminum-and-steel containers, wrapped in an internet of things. The novel is bookended by the story of a pair of friends, the unnamed narrator and Vu, sons of Asian immigrants (South Korean and Vietnamese, respectively) growing up in Ohio. They bond over comic books and the shared alienation and slights of going to school in the white-bread suburban Midwest during the Reagan 1980s.
“The pariah status and bigotry,” the narrator says, “seemed so inevitable and immutable a condition that we didn’t think to complain — with one exception, for me, and that complaint had to do with girls. That — privately, because I couldn’t admit this even to Vu — was the one glaring glandular issue for which our ostracism did acquire a clear, sharp, gut-thrust injury, which seemed to have no cure and so left me cursing gods, crazed, horny, malevolent.” No surprise, then, that these frustrations would be sublimated first into comic-book connoisseurship and then creation, finding what they were missing in life in comics’ “various forms of wish fulfillment or wish embroidering, in swift balletic action that echoed and manifested and were the seeds of our own desires.” Against the empowering fantasies of superheroes that take up much of the book — these are the plots of the comic Team Chaos, drawn by the narrator and written by Vu after (minor spoiler) their adult reunion at an East Village bookstore — the core of the novel is pessimistic. How could a novel about art under capitalism and left politics be otherwise?
Lim is the author of two previous novels and the founder and managing editor of the indie press Ellipsis, lives in Queens, and works as a high-school librarian. Dear Cyborgs will appeal to whatever crossover audience there is among Marvel and DC fangirls and fanboys and readers of recent American autofiction, with its combination of closely examined mundanities and constantly reconceptualized visions of the life of the writer. The alter egos of the heroes of Team Chaos are frustrated artists and serial holders of dead-end jobs. As Vu, a wealthy stock trader in his adult life and something of a fraud, explains the concept: “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.”
On Team Chaos there’s Muriel, a social worker, painter, poet, and survivor of a suicide attempt who’s also a “foundling extraterrestrial sent from a far superior civilization” with the ability to “fly, walk through walls, and shoot powerful beams from the palms of her hands,” powers she only discovered on turning 35 (perhaps code for the age some artists gain real confidence in their talents); Dave, an art-school refugee who’s burned his magnum opus and, in the adventure department, is said to be “very good with a slingshot”; and Frank Exit, earthling narrator of most of the superhero sections, expert in several martial arts, burnt-out author of a collection of short stories (“old-fashioned moral tales disguised as science fiction”), and hack ghostwriter behind a disgraced Chinese-American politician’s best-selling comeback memoir that’s also his own crypto-autobiography and unsigned masterpiece.
Their nemesis is Ms. Mistleto, the head of a terrorist group that kidnaps diplomats’ children and whose demands include “the adoption worldwide of a single-payer universal health care system, mandatory carbon caps, nuclear disarmament, paid yearlong parental leave and a tax on all securities transactions.” The novel is clearly on her side, and in confronting her Frank has to ask himself whether he’s just a tool of state power. He’s also received an anonymous postcard informing him that Ms. Mistleto is his sister.
The question of which side you’re on is reflected in a short retelling of the life of Richard Aoki, “the highest-ranking non-black member of the Black Panthers” and leader of the Third World Liberation Front whose strike at Berkeley in 1969 contributed to the founding of ethnic studies as an academic field. After a long illness, Aoki committed suicide in 2009, and in 2012 the journalist Seth Rosenfeld alleged that FBI documents showed that he was a longtime FBI informant. Lim quotes Aoki’s friend Fred Ho: “If Aoki was an agent, so what? He surely was a piss-poor one because what he contributed to the movement is enormously greater than anything he could have detracted or derailed.” Lim calls Aoki, who was interned in Utah as a boy during World War II, an “utterly and helplessly American character: the secret and self-elected perpetual foreigner modulating between a double and triple identity, this willful impostor suffering from impostor syndrome.”
The allegations against Aoki are “devastating … to those wanting heroes,” but among other Asian-American radicals there’s also the example of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, who in 1968 organized what he “held to be” the largest antiwar protest in the history of the University of Pennsylvania by threatening to napalm a dog in front of the school’s library. “Congratulations,” a Kuromiya-authored leaflet read, “you’ve saved the life of an innocent dog. How about the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese that have been burned alive?”
The historical material is outweighed by scenes of recent protest in Zuccotti Park and in the Bay Area. Dave recounts an exaggerated version of the San Francisco Google Bus protests, including hijackings of vehicles at gunpoint and the torching of a bus. Dave ditches his job at a fast-food chain to join in dismantling a bus (“I tore off several bits as if working on a scab”), setting off a frenzy that ends in flames. A black protester offers him a blow job in gratitude, and in an alley he returns the favor with a hand job. Later, the two are separated when a cop grabs Dave’s new friend and starts beating him with a baton. Dave turns away in fear, and a few weeks later he’s looking for another dead-end job.
The possible futility, complicity, and co-optation of protest are the ideas Dear Cyborgs circles around without ever giving up on the idea that resistance is essential. One Occupy demonstrator compares protest to dance, music, and religious ritual: a form of performance and “a spiritual act where the act itself is the goal.” One thing artists, superheroes, religious believers, and protesters have in common: Their work is never done. Does that render it merely a form of magical thinking or, worse, solipsism? The Occupy protester counters: “Even in solipsism, the subject can be moral. You can call it hokum if you wish, but for the protester, the protest makes a moral world in which she can abide.” I had expected the decade’s wave of protests to yield a raft of conventional social novels — some earnest, some satirical, perhaps not a few reactionary — but in Dear Cyborgs Lim has delivered something far more idiosyncratic, intricate, and useful: a novel that resists and subverts conventions at every turn.
*This article appears in the June 26, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.