Returning to the Problemby Eugene Lim
An irreducible element of the novel is the functionally necessary illusion
of a point of view, a mind, a
personhood at its center either as a character
or as the character of the author
even among the fragmentary, the arcades, the collages,
the ruins. And to write about systems and history—
not illustrated through characters, which is the only plausible
but unsatisfying approach
(unsatisfying because it lies or because it lies too easily)
(and unsatisfying, also, because the individual less and less meaningful
has less and less agency
because of the increasingly powerful
of economic and technological networks)
—and to write about the system itself directly
seems impossible. E.g.
I want to write a novel about the Immigration Act of 19651,
Or maybe I want
to write a novel about recycling habits in the suburbs
See how blunt that is impossible, stupid, right from the get-go
a basic misuse
(social realism is kaputski)
or misunderstanding of the novel form,
(no ideas but in thingamabobs)
(showtime not telltime)
name ideology and mechanics of such directly and still be a novel.
(“give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”)
Instead becoming—only, merely—
polemic or essay or some other device robbed of the transport, the mind to mind connection, of the novel—
a sheath of ice
over the muscles
a new dark age when
the racists win
I was being tortured so lost my mind a little. In the beginning they would fold me into a small box and leave me there. Then, after I wouldn’t give them what was impossible for me to give them, they left me alone in a dark cell
They claimed certain acts were against their laws but not always.
Who I could have been and what I had done to be there soon became lost. Everyone I’d cared about was gone. I dimly remembered them anyway. I dimly remembered that brief time, which maybe anyway was a fable, when I had had brothers and sisters. Had I a wife or maybe a husband? I’d lost my sex along with my mind. Maybe I’d had, it seemed to me I did, a child. A boy or maybe a girl. Had I watched it die? It’s very possible that was why I was here. Or maybe I’d killed someone else’s child, their son or daughter, in front of them. And that was why I was here. Or maybe it was for something absurd. A joke or song or standing next to someone.
There’s no way to kill yourself.
They force feed.
What was inside and outside their laws gave them an illusion of an outline. But everyone—even they—knew their bloat exceeded and oozed past such fences.
It’s not true I didn’t remember. I did remember some things. I remembered the city. Big avenues and parks and terminals and plazas. Crowds going to and from work. People strolling. A Chinese writer I’d read said it’s impossible to say if a person is good or bad when they’re walking the street. They may be coming from evil or good, or on their way to committing evil or good, but in their moment of walking they are neither. Thus they are most human at that moment. Blankly human. The Chinese writer had been in prison when he wrote that.
But it’s not quite true they are blankly human. I realized this after I was released. No one is blankly human. People are dressed. They carry bags, have haircuts. And from these you are able to, even if inaccurately, begin to fill the blank.
I say this now, after being released, finally, but unable to do much except this. I mean now I can only sit. Just sit and watch. I watch the crowds. I lurk at subway stations and parks and grand atriums. I’m isolated but need to be next to the crowds. It’s the same as before but entirely, utterly different.
Having lost your mind is an irreversible event. You are beyond. Your rage is even gone. Only a sadness, a dull sadness if even that, remains, which I recognize now is not, but have hard time imagining is not, all that is or should be possible.
Imagine yourself at a concert. Or in a drunk fight. Or in the early days of a love affair. Or fiddling with a poem. These are a few of the things I’m beyond. Hysteria at a joke, annoyed at waiting in a line, almost all wonder.
Beyond beyond beyond.
But I still have: driving, stepping out of the hot shower, some pain, some talk radio.
Maybe I did kill someone. Maybe this body did. It was so long ago. Maybe I did watch someone kill my son. Maybe these eyes did see that. Maybe I’d meant the joke more than it seemed. Maybe I stood next to the wrong person on purpose.
There are places where life is cheaper than other places. Everywhere it is just as fragile, but in some places it is dearer and in some places it is cheaper.
As you get older almost everyone, rich or poor, learns this a little.
a sheath of ice runs over the muscles
of the heart
when the racists
Here’s a real life scene. My parents are visiting on the occasion of my son’s third birthday. We’re driving back at night, stuck in traffic on the Kosciuszko Bridge in between Brooklyn and Queens, the boy asleep in his car seat. A blue gray autumn darkness poked through by red lights. It’s the fall of an election year. Why do you care? my dad asks me. What difference does it make? I tell him it can affect us very personally. Take, I say casually, the Immigration Act of 1965. It allowed masses of people from Asia in for the first time. But they didn’t realize it. They didn’t know what would happen. You both came because of it. Do you think if they knew what would happen—what the country would look like today—do you think if they knew that—
My mom's bitter laugh from the backseat interrupts me. Then she finishes my thought. They’d never have done it. No way. If they’d known.
a sheath of ice over the bodies
when the racists
again ice over the bodies, again a
new dark age
I’m spending the afternoon with a friend avoiding discussing various disasters recently beset upon us, an avoidance that is becoming more and more synonymous with chickenshit adulthood. Instead, we begin talking about other, somewhat less proximate, disasters.
We’re meeting in Sunset Park. He takes me to a Taiwanese steak house and then to a bakery. His family came from Shanghai when he was eight, and he speaks Shanghainese at home and just enough Mando to get by. (In contrast I’ve always felt illegitimately Korean as my parents came from South Korea the year before I was born and when I speak Korean I sound, according to my father, like a drunk baby). As we’re walking around the neighborhood, I marvel bluntly that it must be nice living in a Chinese neighborhood. He says, “Yeah, it is. I mean I’d sought this out. But I’m still an outsider here. There are a lot of Chinatowns in Chinatown. I live in the outer ring.”
At the bakery he gets an egg custard. I’m a glutton and get a pork bun, a hot dog, and a corn-and-ham thing. All my choices are helpless, obvious mistakes.
Recently his aunt, who used to live with my friend when we were kids, has moved to the area to work as a nanny.
“How’s she doing?” I ask
“Little Aunt?” he says.
He says, “I was trying to remember what happened. It’s weird to have forgotten.”
“With her husband, you mean. The uncle.”
“He killed himself?”
“I think so?”
“What I remember,” I offer, “what I think I remember, is, is that. Didn’t he hang himself? Or was it pills? In that little apartment they rented by the stationery store? And she found him? She found him hanging? Didn’t she find him passed out from pills? Or hung?”
“No, that’s, that. It was different. That was. I think that was someone else. The other time. Someone different.”
“It’s strange to forget basic shit like that. I keep not being sure if my mom’s oldest brother is dead or not. I seem to remember going to the funeral but it might have been for some other person. He was sick for so long. He worked at a dry cleaner and the chemicals gave him cancer. And he was homebound. In a wheelchair and miserable. I’d never visit this uncle. I’d forgotten him. And I can’t remember if he’s actually dead! Or if he’s just rotting away, forgotten, in his house. And the only person to ask is my mom, and I’m not going to do that.”
The friend with whom I’m avoiding discussing the various recent disasters beset upon us says, “So this isn’t the uncle that hung himself though I forget how exactly he did it and it was something similar.”
“Similar in what way?” I ask.
“I mean he tried to kill himself but in a different way.”
“And you can’t remember how.”
“It’s strange to forget the basic shit. But it happens,” I say.
The friend, my avoidant accomplice, says, “Yeah, I can’t remember. What I remember, here’s what, here’s what I remember. He’d gotten a brain tumor and that made him act strange.”
“What do you mean, strange?”
“He started collecting things off the street. Mirrors and shiny metal and foil.”
“What would he do with it?”
“Nothing. Maybe he’d decorate. He’d line them up on the wall. I think the tumor made him crazy. And he came up with this plan. Before he was mild, the funny one, the easy-going one. So it was weird. But my mom says the crazy ran in his family. After the tumor he comes up with this plan to kill my aunt and then himself.”
“I think. If I have that right. But she got away. That I remember. Somehow she got away. He was trying to kill her but she got away. But she broke her arm. He broke her arm, but she got away. And then he did something to himself I forget what. Maybe pills. Maybe a knife? And he dies. He kills himself.”
“Not right then. I think it was a few days later. In the hospital.”
“It’s just a word.”
“And she’s not quite the same after that.”
“I don’t really remember any of that,” I say. “I remember vaguely when he died. That’s all.”
“It’s hard to think of him that way. I mean he always seemed so, so placid. I mean, when we were kids, he seemed quiet, reserved.”
“To you! That’s because he didn’t speak English so he didn’t speak when you were around.”
I looked out the bakery window onto the street of Sunset Park. Every other minute the door would open and another face would come in. All like us. Or, more like my friend. I mean more Chinese and not Korean. But I thought of all these single men, just like his uncle, wandering. Lonely, self-organized, going from odd job to odd job. And then occasionally one would get lucky and find a wife and maybe have a family. But mostly not. And once in a while one would explode. But even then not that noisily.
My friend and I who are avoiding discussing the new racist president then spoke about the new bluetooth headphones he’d gotten and then a little bit about cars. We were both obsessed with the idea of owning, even though we would never actually buy one, a “hot hatch,” that is, a hatchback with a souped-up engine. “The Focus RS is supposed to be the shit,” he said. And then he said, “The thing is that Little Aunt and her husband, that whole generation, never went to college. The Cultural Revolution shut down all the schools. Also her father, my grandfather, was jailed and tortured around then.” He says this plainly, right after and almost in the same breath as the one wherein he gave his received opinion about the Ford Focus RS. “Who knows how that shit messed them up,” he said, “even years later.”
“Yeah,” I said to my friend, an immigrant and a child of immigrants.
Then I said, “Last month my dad was visiting, and I drove him back to his hotel. He told me this story he’d never told me before. Not really a story, just a detail. He has a younger brother. And when my father had first come to the states, after the first few years, the younger brother had written and asked if he could bring his family and join us. It would have changed everything if they’d come, I think. The younger brother, my uncle, has three kids, and if they’d come, we would have been a little tribe and not this isolated left-behind nub. But my father had told him not to come. That was the surprise. It’s surprising because I think of my dad as a fighter. He’s someone who will work through anything and he’ll be cunning and he’ll maneuver and be relentless and find a way. But he must have been so discouraged, I can’t help but think. The work and people shitting on him, the isolation, must have been so intense. Later, he made it. He made his small fortune and we were okay. But in the beginning it must have been pretty bad, maybe horrific. And so he’d told his brother, whom he loved and whom he missed, he told him not to come.”
We looked out the bakery window. And then after some time looking out the bakery window, and after talking some more about his bluetooth headphones and whether this was the best bakery in the neighborhood or not, my friend walked me back to the subway. While we were walking we discussed Android apps that help remember where you park your car, the new Wolverine movie, and what daycare was costing us. While we were talking and walking, we both scanned all the cars and looked for hot hatches.
sheath of ice, a
Kafka versus the Death Star.
Two competing errors.
I hear Tom McCarthy on the radio talking about Kafka…
An error of pride to think one even capable of comprehending let alone rendering whole a system.
of rendering whole let alone comprehending
…Tom McCarthy talking about Kafka’s idea of power
existing always in the next room. You search for power so you can
make your appeal. But you always end up in a line, in a waiting
room, walking down an endless hallway. And when you finally do
overcome all obstacles to get to The Room, you find it’s just
another waiting room. Perhaps this time with a phone connecting
you to yet another room.
(The pale, pony-tailed engineer loves his Kurt Gödel, his complete understanding of incompleteness.)
Real power now is never in a room. It’s become networked. And the
antiquated idea of being able to destroy —this is Tom McCarthy on
the radio still—the Death Star, to be able to destroy
the empire in one perfect
act of rebellion. This is fantasy
To think one can sum it all up, that one can summon it when it resides nowhere,
And the other error
to invest in a symbol, to give to a character a story so that they become a symbolic anecdote—
the poster child—
but the only way to tell a story on an accurate (human) scale is to show the individual.
But. The individual has lost all agency. One’s story less now than
even the proverbial hill of beans. The magnitude of our
insignificance. We are subsumed by
and submissive to
the network. Power has become networked, is the network. And
now, so whispers one fatalistic
dream of Kafka: The act of rebellion is less than trivial, it’s
So the conflict, again, between the particular and general.
But this time whether the particular even exists. But the need to return, again,
In the battle between you and the world, says Kafka, bet on
because the direction and teleology of the system so clear—a swift
and wide flow
—hopeless, tragic, (self) destructive,
and each dust mote in the air’s broad current a sweet
or foul or bursting life.
- From Serve the People by Karen Ishizuka: “Belying its far-reaching impact on the United States, the new immigration act was, at the time of its passage, thought to be more symbolic than consequential—an antidote to the country’s embarrassment during the Cold War of not being the beacon of democracy it professed to be.”
EUGENE LIM is the author of the novels Fog & Car (Ellipsis Press, 2008), The Strangers (Black Square Editions, 2013) and Dear Cyborgs (FSG, 2017). He works as a high school librarian, runs Ellipsis Press, and lives in Queens, NY.