A Year in Reading: Eugene Lim

December 1, 2017 | 8 books mentioned 5 min read

Our current condition of ambient despair gets an excellent portraiture in Evelyn Hampton’s The Aleatory Abyss. It’s an obscure book about being obscure—or at least it is a book about occupying forgotten interstitial spaces and about being of and among technological detritus. In Hampton’s world we live our lives not in streets, schools, libraries, parks, or other public commons but online and in Barnes & Nobles, Starbucks, malls, parking lots, and other privatized spaces; that is, Hampton shows us a familiar world. Personhood and agency here in the Anthropocene are moribund concepts, if not already vestigial, and great creatures called multinationals and state actors roam the terrain while we endure like plankton or parasites below and beside their decisions. This short book also pays homage to and is haunted by Hampton’s friend, the activist and writer Mark Baumer, who died in the middle of a mythic project that found him walking barefoot across America. Both artists are turned helplessly into elegists. Baumer’s work was part durational performance piece, part environmental fundraiser, part quixotic publicity stunt, and part personal protest. He kept record of his walk through a series of videos and blog posts, many of them heartbreakingly prescient, especially his final video, posted the day after the Trump inauguration, the day he died when struck by an SUV. Hampton’s work transmutes Baumer’s extroverted dissent, his syncopated poetic voice, and his manic video edits into its twinned flip: an equally clear-eyed but introverted analysis, a quieter but no less fierce objection. The Aleatory Abyss is a beautiful work, and profits from sales will go to the charity Mark Baumer was walking for: the FANG collective.

coverUntil recently I hadn’t heard of Brian Castro or of his 2003 layered labyrinth of a novel called Shanghai Dancing. This, despite his checking off some primary boxes of personal interest: an English-language experimental novelist of Asian descent—a winner of nearly every major Australian literary prize, Castro was born in Hong Kong to a Portuguese father and an English-Chinese mother—whose erudition and interweavings of history, identity, and literature have garnered favorable, though perhaps misleading, comparisons to W.G. Sebald. Though their interest in history’s palimpsest is similar, Castro is boozier, more lush and improvisational, and much more of a sensualist than Sebald. He is free and risking, but usually his literary daredevilism mesmerizes with grace. This large, brilliant, messy book suffers from a cliched status of criminal critical neglect, or, as a writer put it on this site, Shanghai Dancing is “the best contemporary book in English that most Americans have never heard of.” But rather than make its neglect the takeaway, let’s celebrate the fact that the excellent Kaya Press has brought another of Castro’s novels, The Garden Book, to stateside readers.

coverThe personal is ever political in Bae Suah’s A Greater Music. Similar in content to Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate, if wholly different in style, Bae’s novel concerns love affairs across class and cultural lines. Described by the author in an interview as “a story of an unequal love,” a Korean woman recalls two affairs in Berlin during a time when she was struggling to learn German: one with the unrefined and practical Joachim and another with the hyper-educated “M.” The original title literally translates to The Essayist’s Desk, which the author says she chose because she wanted “a slightly freer form, one that would give me greater distance from the melodramatic excitement that fiction can generate.” And almost as if the people were mere means to learn German—though by the end of the book we realize how inseparable the two are—a great deal of the book’s focus slips away from the relationships and lingers on the internal convolutions of identity and self-alienating processes required when learning a foreign language. One of my favorite, perhaps unintentional, enjoyments was a long description of the narrator encountering a novel that she thinks notably avoids the cliches of “East German melancholy,” which made me think of the already overplayed American critical use of “Korean Han,” of which nonetheless Bae’s writing could be thought of as invoking.

It’s best to experience Anne Garréta’s Sphinx with no prior knowledge about it other than to know it is pretty good. Maybe that it’s sinister and transcends clever but probably even that’s too much. Sometimes it muddled in my brain with James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Roomnot entirely sure why, but maybe the pairs of star-crossed Parisians. Not knowing anything about it also includes not reading Daniel Levin Becker’s excellent introduction (which itself advises the same) and also avoiding the copy on the back cover.

In the age of ubiquitous and inescapable End User License Agreements (the ones where you have clicked “I accept”), we are all now collaborators—in both the crowdsource sense and the Vichy-esque one. Barbara Browning’s The Gift shows our interactive lives can and do allow enormous and strange forms of intimacy. It’s a smart and joyful autofictional game of a novel that suggests we shouldn’t underestimate the level of sensuality and vulnerability in even our more transactional or semi-anonymous contacts. Her novel begins with a loving reply to a spammer and goes on to include many different kinds of, as Browning calls them, inappropriate intimacies—from downtown performance art to Occupy’s Free University to dinner parties with members of Pussy Riot. Of these, the most central to the novel is with “Sami,” a musical virtuoso amputee living in Cologne, or so he claims to be in his and the narrator’s increasingly involved correspondence. Browning writes in one of the novel’s many confessions: “Actually, the book I’m beginning now is about collaboration, and the eros inherent in the collaborative process, which is also the process of writing the novel.” Her style is both gossipy and academic, utopian yet present, flirtatious yet steely, classically observed but zany in closing aphorism. If Rachel Cusk’s and Ben Lerner’s seem to be made in a humorless or self-aggrandizing black and white, Browning’s autofiction is a highwire gamble of vulnerability, true lies, and eager friendliness wrought in popping, saturated technicolor.

A historical survey, even one as well researched and balanced and clearly written as Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America, wouldn’t normally have commanded my attention with such emotion, but the country has renewed its racist vows, and so certain episodes in our national past now glow in the different light. Some, in fact, seem worse than unfortunate parallels with the contemporary—they’ve become taunts of impending/begun cataclysm. As others have noted, periods like the era of Asian exclusion acts and the years of Japanese American internment suddenly appear, rather than moments of national shame, now more like precedents, if not how-to’s. (One story I discovered in Lee’s overview, eye opening in its relevance, was the story of Canada’s Continuous Journey Law and the resulting epic of the Komagata Maru. The racist 1908 law was challenged in the courts and overturned by a surprise decision from an activist judge only to be eventually upheld, effectively banning South Asians from entering Canada. That is, the obviously illegal ban was defeated in the courts before a surge of stoked racism and a dearth of political courage allowed it to become law.) A Woody Allen joke packs a lot of terror in its casual delivery: “Don’t you even care about the Holocaust, or do you think it never happened?” one character asks another. The riposte: “Not only do I know that we lost 6 million, but the scary thing is that records are made to be broken.” That joke seems more truthful than the George Santayana observation about the unremembering ignorant being condemned to repeat history. Perhaps ignorance has little to do with it.

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is the author of the novels Fog & CarThe Strangers, and Dear Cyborgs. More at eugenelim.com.

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