book review

Finally, Some Freaky K-pop Writing

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

A woman becomes obsessed with a K-pop idol: This increasingly ubiquitous real-life narrative is the basic premise of Esther Yi’s debut novel, Y/N, in which an unnamed protagonist undergoes a process of spiritual conversion after attending the concert of a South Korean boy band so popular they’ve generated a power outage across a Pacific island. As is commonly the case, the woman initially resists proselytization, seeing herself as a person of greater refinement: “My spiritual sphincter stayed clenched to keep out the cheap and stupid,” she proclaims. But, subjected to the effusive sermonizing of her flatmate, she becomes curious about what life-altering devotion feels like. So she goes to the boy band’s first-ever show in Berlin, where, amid thousands of screaming fans, she is perturbed, and then enraptured, by the youngest member, Moon: by his flesh-colored hair; his “tragic, ancient” dance movements; and, most of all, his auratic, “limestone column of neck,” which she imagines as part of a taut muscle extending down the torso into a sproinging penis.

While occasionally conceding the vicious behavior of stan armies, much mainstream writing about K-pop in the West presents fandom as a generally chaste, wholesome experience. In these accounts, ordinary people of all backgrounds are rescued from the tedium of their circumstances by loving a talented, compassionate group of idols in spite of the dismissiveness of crotchety music critics and people around them. The idols are philanthropists, not only because they sympathize with minority causes and confess to their own mental-health struggles, but also because they usher passion and purpose into their devotees’ lives. “Women my age are rarely given the space to express desire, let alone lust,” Rani Neutill, an Asian American literature professor moonlighting as a fandom scholar, wrote recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, observing that, for her peers, BTS has “alleviated the sorrows that came from living through the pandemic as stay-at-home moms, remote workers, or unemployed women.” The Atlantic editor Lenika Cruz, in her book WHY BTS, said that BTS fandom helped her push forward after suffering from agoraphobic panic attacks: “I could no longer think of a good enough reason to continue denying myself joy.” And in a reported essay from last year, The New Yorker contributing writer E. Tammy Kim portrayed the embrace of the band as an almost pragmatic bid for happiness in a declining world: “I have found that BTS Armys do not live in a fantasy. They live where everyone else does: in a world of depression, mass death, and ecological ruin.”

These accounts are chipperly respectable and pretty boring. In their attempts to demystify K-pop fandom for the greater public, they present desire as something benevolent and logical, an almost inevitable consequence of dazzling choreography, compassionate lyrics, and cute personalities. And while desire can be these things, it can also be selfish, weird, and grotesque. The internet is littered with bizarro fan fiction of boy band members impregnating one another and flippant replies to “stan Loona” — to pledge allegiance to the 11-member girl-group Loona — left under alerts of tragic deaths. In contrast to the standard narratives, Y/N is less interested in demystifying a cultural phenomenon by creating a legible justification for why someone becomes obsessed; it simply throws readers down the hole of obsession in all its fevered absurdity.

Like many fans, the unnamed narrator of Y/N has a dead-end job, as a copywriter for a canned-artichoke-hearts brand tasked with “credibly infus[ing] the vegetable with the ability to feel romantic love for its consumer.” She takes pride in being unrelatable and struggles to respond normally to pleasantries like “How are you?” The boy band, unnamed in the book, seems standard-issue, with five members named after celestial bodies—Venus, Sun, Mercury, Jupiter, and Moon. In the end, it’s not her flatmate’s reasoned explanation of the band’s appeal that converts the narrator into a Moon fanatic, nor the band’s catchy songs, but a charged, ineffable identification with one of his body parts: “Vavra’s mistake had been to draw rational strokes of narrative … But all I’d needed was to begin with the singularity of his neck.” (His neck!)

The novel is loosely divided into two sections, one describing the beginning of the narrator’s infatuation with Moon at her home in Berlin, and the other following her on an epic quest across Seoul to pursue him after his surprise retirement and disappearance. The first part is tart and farcical, landing joke after joke as it sends up the grandiosity of K-pop storylines and fan messaging. After reading a Korean translation of Sophocles, the boy band has become fixated on Oedipus Rex’s decision to gouge his eyes out; consequently, the album they’re performing is “a statement of protest against Oedipus’ capitulation to darkness, celebrat[ing] too much seeing, too much light.” (Such cerebral concepts are not uncommon: BTS’s fourth album, Map of the Soul, was based on Jungian psychoanalysis; the boy band Seventeen re-created Dead Poets Society in a 2019 video teaser.) In a show of importance, the band refers to their adoring fans as “livers” because “we kept them alive, like critical organs.” Part of why Y/N is so engrossing is because it’s great parody — or as its targets might say, it reads them to filth. In one scene, fans bombard Moon’s livestream chat with desires as his bandmate Mercury stages them in real life: burning Moon’s hand, pushing his cuticles, kissing his neck. Their intrusive, hyperactive questioning feels comically true to real life: “How do you like your eggs? May I bear your children?… When I listen to the news, I get jealous of the most horrible event of the day, like a high schooler gunning down his classmates or families getting burned to a crisp by a military strike. I wish I were a horrible event so that you’d hear about me. Hey, why don’t you like Dostoevsky?”

Y/N is more freakish and hallucinatory than your average satire. Yi approaches the body at off-putting angles; even rice cakes are said to look like “they’d freshly buckled out of someone’s joint sockets.” The narrator’s boyfriend, an academic named Masterson, is primarily distinguished as being long. Beyond that, he has few real qualities to indicate why anyone would choose him as a partner; he is just a stand-in with a stock name, a form to color in with her own desire. (He is also a suggestion of the book’s ambivalent relationship to scholars, with their tendency to rationalize and consequently disenchant everything. “Moon can’t be researched,” the narrator snaps after Masterson declares his intention to study the boy band, a “fascinating phenomenon.”) After a party in which the narrator perversely tells Masterson’s colleagues she’s his sister, she notices his neck is “thin and birdlike — a precarious support,” which leads to a sexual fantasy in which a silent Moon urges Masterson to squeeze his throat: “Surely he had something to say deep inside, extrudable like toothpaste.” The story becomes vertiginous as it sends us down a hall of mirrors: Right before imagining this seduction, she realizes that she herself looks like Moon — a detail that conveys the narcissism of desire, how it is rarely about the reality of the other person and more often about how your fantasy of them enlivens you.

Y/N does not stand for “yes or no” but “your name,” a type of fan fiction in which the reader inserts themselves as a character in the story. In one scene, the narrator attends a meeting of the Berlin chapter of the band’s fandom, where an attendee raises complaints about this style of writing: “There is never a story when it comes to Y/N. Only absurd and arbitrary leaps of plots.” This feels like a meta-commentary on the novel itself, which is always turning the corner before you can adjust to the scene, especially in the latter half (the onslaught of head-spinning maneuvers might really test your patience if the book, at just over 200 pages, were not so compact). After Masterson dumps her, the narrator writes and mails surreal stories about Moon to him, leading her to discover a fan-fiction site akin to Archive of Our Own. From there, the division between what transpires in real life and her Y/N yarns becomes increasingly slippery.

On a whim, she decides to go to Seoul to find Moon. Many fans fantasize about the series of magical coincidences that might lead them to meet their fave, and in accordance with this dream logic, everything falls into place for the narrator. (Did she quit her job? How can she afford the trip? The book never answers.) In a peculiar meet-cute, a shoe-factory worker named O approaches the narrator on the street, stunned to discover a stranger sporting the soles she manufactured; she wants to assist the narrator on her quest, a kind of selfless missionary serving the Chosen One. After O secretly enrolls her in a lottery, the narrator wins a visit to the headquarters of the boy band’s entertainment company. She is driven by a mysterious suited man to an obscure sanctuary for dementia patients outside the city and greeted with open arms by the sanctuary’s founder. After meeting some eccentric characters — a geography teacher, a former designer of stilettos — she finally, miraculously encounters Moon under a cherry-blossom tree.

That she actually meets Moon is surprising; his presented purpose is to exist as a totalizing concept, not a concrete being. Earlier, in one of the narrator’s Y/N stories, her protagonist is face down in squelching moss, relieved by her inability to see beyond it. She decides she must approach Moon with similar limitations: “She must be immersed in him, and she must not be able to see him … She must stop trying to find Moon on her plane of existence.” The book repeatedly returns to objects of ungraspable enormity. In one Y/N story, the narrator stares at Moon’s neck until it becomes a Rubens vase, unable to be observed in its entirety. In a parallel, ostensibly real-life scene, she looks at an intricate portrait O has painted of the back of her knee — O admires how the wrinkles on it serve as a record of the narrator’s journey — the rest of the body left unfinished. “I could see, even in these early strokes upon the canvas, that the work would become an image of myself truer than any reflection in a mirror. The prospect of this image — of what it might reveal — suddenly frightened me,” the narrator observes. As an intact whole, she feels inadequate; as an incomplete part, she is pristine, full of blazing potential.

One of the most freighted excerpts in Y/N describes the perspective of the Music Professor, the K-Pop entertainment company’s president, who argues that real character comes from relinquishing one’s selfhood for a higher cause. Whereas those in advanced societies love their “small adorable freedoms” — to order a pad thai for dinner, to wear ripped jeans — she argues these choices ultimately mean nothing: “The true individual abstracted his personal desires so as to perform bold acts of creation or faith.” (This seems to be the broad principle on which the book operates; throughout Y/N, we learn few objective facts about the narrator — what she looks like, her upbringing, what she likes beyond Moon.) The novel is filled with such dense philosophical passages from which you might try to form a unified theory of desire, although it may be more enjoyable to let the story overwhelm you and let go of sense-making.

Finally, Some Freaky K-pop Writing