Character names are often the most repeated words in fiction, so authors tend to freight them with allegorical meaning as a matter of efficiency. Christian labors toward the Celestial City in A Pilgrim’s Progress; Moby Dick’s Ishmael travels the ocean much like his biblical namesake wandered Levantine deserts; Beckett’s Watt is perplexed, his Krapp is retentive. The title of Fog & Car, Eugene Lim’s impressive debut novel, refers to Jim Fog and Sarah Car, a newly-divorced couple whose parallel stories compose the opening half of the book. Cars and fog, of course, are not complementary, so the likelihood of a reunion for these two seems dim from the start.
Beyond allegory, these names describe respective styles. In the wake of the divorce, Sarah Car pursues a mechanical oblivion consonant with her name. Grief and bewilderment are subsumed in tasks that require neither feeling nor reflection: she moves; she grouts tiles; she copyedits; she swims. The narration of her activities is correspondingly dry, remote, automated, as though a technical writer had been commissioned to record her every move. “She entered the shower and shampooed her hair. While her hair was sudded, she brushed her teeth. She would habitually spit her paste spittle onto her feet and dumbly watch the shower water sink it away. She soaped after this and rinsed.” Passages like this are near parodies of conventional realist fiction, and from time to time the prose’s enactment of the banal is itself banal. But in the end it is precisely the exaggerated pedantry of the style that allows it to transcend what it describes.
Conversely, Jim Fog wallows in a mist of disordered nostalgia and subject-less, object-less thought. The syntax is muddied, eroded, elliptical, tangential—the formal expression of an interior fog. It’s also some of the loveliest writing in the book, amounting to an extended prose-poem that reveals a sensibility of acute ambivalence and muted anxiety. “A hope for an end, or perhaps just a morbid fascination at the structure without foundation, still standing. Each limb cantilevering another and that in turn another, so that it stands on nothing but itself, an intricate flower that defying gravity, he rips apart to find only an empty center.”
Fog & Car alternates between Car and Fog, establishing a contrapuntal rhythm that incrementally resolves into a lucid, supple prose emblematic of their slow recovery from each other. Ironically, over the course of the novel they become more alike. And just as the reader is settling into what appears to be a subtle, penetrating meditation on contemporary relationships, everything is thrown into disarray by the appearance of a deus ex machina in the form of a third major character. There’s no doubting his ex machina nature; his name is Frank Exit. With his arrival, the novel abruptly swerves from its naturalist mode into surreality.
Fog & Car has the shape of a long turnpike that runs into an urban snarl of on and off ramps. Suddenly every incidental thread of the early, gently-paced narrative knots up into a supernatural tangle of a plot—souls are exchanged, coincidences multiply. But as Frank Exit remarks near the end of the book, “I realized that coincidence was just my generation’s name for magic, and that there is a discovery repeated by each generation, that magic is less extraordinary than it is hidden, and that once discovered, it becomes everywhere apparent.” Here, in a nutshell, is the book’s governing principle: The lack of coincidence in the novel’s first half is meant to illustrate the perceptual failure of both Fog and Car. Once discovered under the surface of incident, coincidence is not merely “everywhere apparent”; it’s inescapable.
Introducing dense plotting halfway through an otherwise plotless novel is an intriguing and daring formal gambit. To defy novelistic conventions is easy enough. The difficulty comes in custom-building new forms for a story, and new stories for these new forms. Suiting the action to the word and the word to the action is no easy feat, but it is one that Lim has achieved with his first tragicomic novel.
Curran is the author of Mopus: A Novel.