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“Search History” an Ode to Joy in Autotune

“Search History” an Ode to Joy in Autotune

  • A review of Eugene Lim's new book, "Search History."

Search History by Eugene Lim charts the swerves that persist across our systems and ideologies. This novel, like Dear Cyborgs, addresses questions around living and thinking in relation to one another, mediated through the internet. And one of the practical results of these questions is a cascade of framing devices. There is a cyborg named César Aira. There is an AI dog that may or may not be a reincarnated friend. There are workers in a Chinese factory, an adjunct professor in the States, and conversations with a dog through an elaborate speaker system. Luckily, the effect of these shifting perspectives focuses less on voice than on being multi-vocal, and creating a sense of polyphony. By the end of the novel, any narrative corresponding to one singular voice is subsumed within a general thread of conversation that’s carried along through each section.

This novel is very funny. It has a quick wit that comes on barrel-chested, deriding at times poetry, the neo-liberal consensus, and various pop culture ephemera. We find the phantasmagoria of Weibo. There’s a public intellectual that “handled everything: scandal, sex, politics, political scandals, racism, weather, the racism of weather, Japanese cartoons.” A restaurant nicknamed Inauthentic Sushi: “Owned by a genial and painfully good-looking 1.5-gen Korean couple, the food is all made by Mexicans from Chiapas, and the waitstaff is mostly from Fujian. Dave, who is Korean American and therefore perhaps slightly biased, says it’s okay to appropriate Japanese food culture because they were aggressors in the Second World War.”

And this spirit of good-natured humor allows Lim a half-serious, aw shucks, earnestness in exchanges. He populates the novel with characters working through ideas, sometimes in cheeky narration: “And so slowly, while maintaining an attitude of nonchalance and casual good humor, I found myself yearning to ask him something. This was a question that had long been on my mind but to which I didn’t think I’d ever find an answer. It was similar to when you by chance meet an orthopedic surgeon at a party and try delicately to bring the conversation around to your chronic and exquisite lower-back pain.”

The dialogue doesn’t solve the big issues, but there’s something heartening in its inevitable ambivalence:   “These days we seem so concerned with identity and race but the key teaching of the Buddha is that there is no self.” And possible answers: “Identity is constructed. And it’s constructed both by the individual and by society, both within and without, Race and class are but two aspects of it. Your name is another. Your physical dimensions another. But despite being a construct, and one that is dependent on a vast and intricately interrelated web of causes and therefore without a fundamental abiding nature, it is an important construction in that most organize their lives around it.”

Lim drops threads, and picks them back up: “Sometimes I wonder if the things we so chiefly use as markers for identify aren’t in fact the least fundamental. Ideas of race or class or tribe may be true for political and social movements, but on closer examination, these categories turn out to be only the flimsiest and unimportant of costume. And things like: one’s sense of humor, the choices of friends one keeps, how we organize our approach to crisis—these are more durable and fundamental aspects of our identity than the tribal ones, than ethnic culture or political persuasion or aesthetic camp… But then again, I guess this also could be called false dichotomous thinking.”

One of the principle organizing metaphors for the text comes through the project of a “Dysthmic AI Scientist.”

“The dysthmic AI scientist has an idea to push the envelope even further… She’s building a neural net to write An. Award. Winning. Book. She’s aiming for a Pulitzer or an NBA shortlist but willing to settle for a PEN/Faulkner…What she’s done is build a machine that she keeps feeding prizewinners as well as works of so-called literature and sentimental best sellers. She thinks she just has to hit the right combination of fifty-cent vocabulary, purposeful obfuscation, euro-fetishing wistfulness, and saccharine plot– and she may be able to secure a Man Booker. But it’s not working… The cake is missing a binding agent… I bet I know the missing ingredient… A chunk of reality. Just a little bit. Real talking. Conversation with an urge to communicate something. In a word: friendship.”

When the Oulipo set up literary constraints and experiments to produce texts of meaning and beauty, they inevitably encountered a ghost within the machinery. There were creaks and moans within every sonnet. There were places the constraint would buckle and crack. Following the atomists, they called these ruptures in the constraint, these exceptions to the rules, the clinamen, or swerve.

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For Lim, conversation with an urge to communicate is the wrinkle that persists through increasingly stratified systems of organization and communication. He finds moments of lyricism that say everything in the world without saying anything in particular. A father and son drink Johnny Walker and eat fried chicken silently on a botched American Road Trip to Joshua Tree. A man disassembles the American Song Book on a found piano on a busy New York City street. Perhaps most affectingly, Lim captures moments of sensation reclaimed within a Joe Brainard “I Remember” interlude in homage to his mother.

He writes, “I remember in my childhood my mother being slightly scared of gloves because she associated them with tales she was told as a girl of North Korean agents sent to strangle children in their sleep.”

Search History is a living, breathing novel. Its fascinations and enthusiasms are important yet ambivalent. Lim references reaching the age of Dante, and Tarkovsky in the period of Mirror. And it’s a comparison that applies to this work. It’s mature, without being self-serious or fatalistic. An Ode to Joy in Autotune.

Search History
By Eugene Lim
Coffee House Press
Published October 5, 2021

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