American writer and “librarian by day” Eugene Lim’s fourth novel, Search History, opens: “The thing about the infinite library is that step one is to know the book you want and step two is figuring out how to get to its location.” Lim’s warning/invitation to the reader is that this search “often leads to chaos, intoxication, pointless idle, blood oath, masturbation, fiancées, and dance”. His inventive book propels us into a simulation of this search via an unfolding Borgesian labyrinth with a narrative structure that mirrors the distraction of switching between open browser tabs: “This is the adventure of the reader.”
Search History is populated by characters who are haunted by ghosts of the living and dead. Muriel is grieving the death of her beloved friend, Frank Exit. After overhearing a conversation about a dog, she is convinced that this animal is Frank’s reincarnation, which launches an absurdist intergalactic quest to retrieve the dog. Muriel is thrown together with sidekick Donna Winters, who is mourning the loss of her two mothers, one through death and the other through abandonment.
The novel’s baroque subtitle – “Concerning the Adventures, Quests, and Setbacks of Frank Exit, His Friends & Other Strangers of Far Flung and Nearby Origin Caught in the Winds of la huida hacia adelante Or The Unfolding Or The Flux” – states upfront the eccentricity that unfolds. Earlier novels such as Dear Cyborgs have established Lim as an inventive writer. In Search History he breaks the form again to create an unconventional collage of interwoven chapters that shift between outlandish adventure, philosophical ruminations, sections of “autobiography” and authorial asides to the reader. Lim’s novel hints at W. G. Sebald and Kathy Acker, and sits alongside contemporaries such as Ling Ma and Elizabeth Tan.
In just over 150 pages, Search History tackles a compilation of contemporary woes: capitalism and consumerism, racism, the intergenerational wounds of migrant families, the whitewashing of art and the contested place of Asian–American artists. Lim also takes on the dystopian possibilities of artificial intelligence, beautifully rendered as a takedown of literary culture: an AI scientist attempts to build a neural net to write a Booker Prize-winning novel with the “right combination of fifty-cent vocabulary, purposeful obfuscation, euro-fetishizing wistfulness, and saccharine plot”.
The construction of self and identity and the transformative nature of art underpin a work that, despite being clothed in clever satire and searing humour, is a tender exploration of how we love and what we consequently risk losing, of death and its aftermath, grief. Lim gives us a novel that dwells in the “imminent pitfalls, lurking traps, the ambient potential of tragedy”, of being human.
Coffee House Press, 152pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Search History, Eugene Lim".
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