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Trauma, T.V. and Time Travel Shape Identity in “Flux”

Trauma, T.V. and Time Travel Shape Identity in “Flux”

  • Our review of Jinwoo Chong’s new novel, “Flux.”

Jinwoo Chong’s debut novel Flux bends time and identity equally as three characters take turns sharing the narrative spotlight in a story that explores trauma, regret, Americanness and dealing with everything in between. Bo, who is eight years old, suffers the tragic loss of his mother and finds solace in a detective show. Brandon, a listless twenty-something, loses his job after the company is bought, leaving him to seek a new job and purpose. Blue, the only living witness in a criminal trial involving the suspicious deaths of coworkers from his sketchy former tech-company employer Flux nearly twenty years before, was a failed husband and failing father. Each character experiences an event that shifts their world and all but erases their current identity forcing them to make a decision to either start over or quit.

Chong uses a compelling device of filtering scenes through the parallels that occur in an older television show of a grizzled detective who never misses a shot and always catches the villain… until he doesn’t. The fictional show, Raider, named after its protagonist, is a picture-in-picture echoing themes that occur in the book. The lead character is the surrogate through which Brandon recognizes the incremental progress of Asian representation in media of the time, which is ironic because Raider is not an Asian role, adding another complicated layer of identity for Brandon who connects so strongly with the fictional character. But Chong does more than just present imagery side by side for comparison. Raider, who is also later referred to as Jacket Guy, is a character who Brandon uses as a sounding board or therapist, confessing feelings and secrets and comparing reactions to life events. Sometimes Brandon makes decisions knowing it will turn out the same as a scene in a particular episode or other times admitting that Raider would handle it differently. Raider is a stand-in for Brandon’s father, with whom he has a fractured relationship. As his father’s dementia worsens, Brandon’s guilt increases, widening the gap between him and any hope of reconciliation with his father and estranged brother. 

The element of time works differently regarding the television show, but still packs a punch. Chong’s characters deal with premature loss, much like the infamous show being canceled after a season-ending cliffhanger. When the show ends before its time, Brandon must continue on with his life despite desperately hanging on to the past. He exists within a state of arrested development because of it. Blue’s regrets are initially revealed as the strained relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. But when he realizes a potential loophole in how he experiences time travel—a byproduct of Flux’s incomplete if not illegitimate development of a new, perpetual energy source to combat the sporadic city blackouts—he may have discovered a way to start again.

Chong leans into the exploration of loss in multiple aspects. Not only Bo’s loss of his mother or Brandon’s loss of his job or Blue’s loss of his family, but each of the three characters loses an element of themselves. Bo’s anger at his father’s seemingly heartless response to their family’s tragedy causes him to run away. Brandon’s job shakes him to the core and causes him to reevaluate himself in every way, from his sexuality to the Korean language he never learned growing up. While in his highly vulnerable state, he is recruited into a program that ultimately causes him to reinvent himself into someone he despises. Blue, having lost his wife, daughter, and even his ability to speak, must learn to navigate the world differently, including using a new voice that he adopts as his own. When Blue does his own self-evaluation and finds himself wanting, he has one trick up his sleeve that could fix everyone’s problems.

Flux’s female characters, two in particular, need to be more substantial. Min, a salesperson at the neighboring Italian boutique, meets the life-shaken Brandon moments after losing his job and sells him a bag that obliterates his severance pay, but not before she warns him against it. Later, on their date, she shares with him a philosophy that could shift his world back into focus, but he squanders it, causing her to disappear for a large swath of the book. Blue’s daughter appears in person toward the end of the text full of wit, motivation, and depth, but she is gone in a flash, leaving behind a strong desire to learn more about her and their family dynamic. These women are compelling enough to demand a stronger presence, but are not allowed the time on the page they deserve.

Overall, Flux is an artful read full of slick, humorous writing and a neatly braided narrative. Chong’s character study covers grief and identity in a way that is both powerful and nuanced in a way that does not bog down the story and in fact moves it forward with three leads who are compelling enough to drive this original story to a conclusion that leaves nothing behind.

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By Jinwoo Chong
Melville House
Published March 21, 2023

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