Eugene Lim’s new novel Dear Cyborgs addresses this question as his characters meditate on art, political dissent, and purpose. In nestled narratives, the novel weaves a story of friendship that calls for a provocative conversation. If the novel is smart, the author is more so: Lim recently shared some of his thoughts on contemporary politics, the power of art, and a thorough reading list for those of us who want more after finishing Dear Cyborgs.
Sara Cutaia: A line that seemed innocuous at first but came to mean much more is said early in the book: “Here is one lesson that Vu taught me. It maybe doesn’t seem on the surface to be about comic books, but it is.” How do comics affect your life personally? Do you think the medium allows for an easier exploration of political climates, for example? Also, the superheroes of this book muse on creativity and art, as well as the futility (or not?) of protest. I couldn’t help but make connections between the fantasy of their powers, and the fantasy of a fair and just fictional/American government. Was this intentional, this parallel?
Eugene Lim: Like a lot of kids, superheroes were important to me. Comic books were a world and a habit of my friends when I was in junior high. And just as the frequently cited example of Godzilla as a manifestation of the fears and promise of the atomic age, in a deep and real way I think superheroes are the central mythology of our collective global era. Having said that, I think the superhero idea was less a central metaphor to this book than perhaps simply another genre idea (like the detective story or the action movie) that I wanted to subvert or use as a Trojan Horse to allow a momentum to the narrative while still including more deforming or nontraditional elements.
However, having said that, I’ll say one superhero interpretation I did have in mind was the neoconservative reading of The Dark Knight as a justification for American Exceptionalism.* (In some ways, the following reading of the Nolan film as a Bush II apologia did not seem far fetched to me, and I think that logic of exceptionalism pretty dangerous: “The privileged child, acting on the expectations of his parents, faces ‘pure evil’ … by ramping up use of paramilitary equipment and absurdly expensive surveillance systems to take on this depoliticized evil and leaves having done the ‘right thing’ despite a plummeting approval rating…”*) But more important to Dear Cyborgs I think is the generalized question that the the protester or the civil disobedient or the terrorist or the vigilante (superpowered or otherwise) faces: Is my cause righteous/consequential enough to defy the hegemony?
Sara Cutaia: I loved that Dear Cyborgs pulled no punches. Though a work of fiction, there are constant instances that bring to mind current events, like the hacking incident the narrator was asked to investigate, “In addition to the usual infidelities and sex trafficking… it was deemed most embarrassingly revealed that these politicians were atrocious hobbyists… the president himself painted psychoanalytically revealing self-portraits in which he unintentionally confessed he was a child-man, a buffoon manipulated by devious puppet masters.” Then, in exchange for hostages, Ms. Mistleto demands a few things, including universal healthcare. Were these things you started writing before the chaos that ensued post-election, or did you start writing about them as they became such talking points?
Eugene Lim: The book was written before the election, but it was definitely written during the Obama technocratic era when neoliberalism seemed in ascendance and when both climate change and economic inequality were “slow apocalypses” happening to us so gradually that we were and are unable to generate a coherent collective response. I was surprised myself to discover I was writing a political book. But during the years writing it, more and more I found myself increasingly in a state of despair and more and more focused on the horrible situation we seem unable to avoid. Proposals mentioned in the book like universal healthcare, a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions or Pigovian taxes in general like a carbon tax, nuclear disarmament — these are obviously not new ideas, but if they seem at all prescient it’s merely because the increasingly apparent devastating effects of contemporary capitalism have made stop-gap progressive notions like these more palatable.
Sara Cutaia: On a structure level, I’d call this novel unconventional. The two threads – the friendship, and the superheroes – are woven together with the small intersessions of “Dear Cyborgs” riddles. How did you go about writing this? What about the content seemed to call for the structure?
Eugene Lim: My last novel The Strangers used a method that I repeat in Dear Cyborgs, which was a structure based on monologues in series. A character steps up to the spotlight, so to speak, and tells in her or his voice a long story. And then another character does the same. And then another. This allows a great variety of content and styles to happen. The trick is to find a coherent reason for this series to happen and to continue to happen as well as to make the various tales somehow harmonize or reverberate or otherwise interact to create something more than just a picaresque or anthology. One reason I like this method, in addition to the variety it allows, is that it seems accurate to both the fractal, fragmentary, and disparate feeling of our contemporary experience. It also seems reflective of the fact that we each — by reading on our commute, then having a conversation with a coworker, listening to a podcast on our lunch break, watching a genre movie in the evening — flow through a stream of different worlds daily and in fact quite naturally.
Sara Cutaia: The friendship between the main character and his friend Vu is very poignantly portrayed throughout the novel. Their shared love of comic books and identity (as Asian-Americans) drew them together. Was there someone in your life (either in childhood or now) that has had the same influence on you?
Eugene Lim: I did have friends in junior high who taught me about comic books, and there are definitely important people and elements from that time I draw upon. But also I moved in ninth grade, and, as far as autobiography goes, at the new school I met two friends — shout outs to Jamil and Ning — that I’m still close to. We’re all fathers now and a lot of time has passed — but we shared a very important time watching and dissecting movies, music and comic books. They both taught (and teach) me a lot about friendship, art, nerd solidarity, not to mention key lessons about race and identity.
Sara Cutaia: How important is literature and art in the Trump era? Not only to write about in a meta-sense, as I feel Cyborgs does, but also just in terms of its existence?
Eugene Lim: Pretty important. Hard to say why other than it is. There’s a quote in the book from the great performance artist Tehching Hsieh where he says he doesn’t think art can change the world but at least it can unveil life. And that I think gets close to it. Also, Audre Lorde has a great essay where she says the purpose of her poetry is to name the nameless so it can be thought, and she also says that act of articulation of tacit assumptions and hidden ideologies is the first step to action.
Sara Cutaia: You’ve been compared to many a great author – not the least of which include Roberto Bolaño and Tom McCarthy. So can we hear from you, now? Who are the greats that you think should get more attention?
Eugene Lim: Some great writers working today that I don’t think get the attention they deserve… Miranda Mellis, whose books None of This Is Real and The Spokes are incredible. I published the short story collection Discomfort by Evelyn Hampton, and I think she’s a great mapper of how the mind thinks in language. I love Percival Everett, especially I Am Not Sidney Poitier. There’s a very weird slippery subversive take on the traditional Asian American novel I loved by Tan Lin called Insomnia and the Aunt. I thought Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet was inspired. I really loved Patty Yumi Cottrell’s great debut Sorry to Disrupt the Peace in part because the Venn diagram of books influenced by Thomas Bernhard as well as dealing with the alienation of being Asian American in the Midwest is fairly sparsely populated. Donald Breckenridge’s latest And Then is a heartbreaker. And I loved Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot, which is a thought provoking exploration of the possibilities and absurdities of collective action.
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim
Published June 6, 2017
Eugene Lim is the author of two novels, Fog & Car and The Strangers. His writing has appeared in Fence, the Denver Quarterly, Little Star, Dazed, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. He is the founder and managing editor of Ellipsis Press and works as a librarian in a high school. He lives in Queens, New York.
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