The “MacGuffin” is a term that will be familiar to students of classic Hollywood. Hitchcock called it “the thing the spies are after” — an object of unknown origins and untold value, which remains forever just out of reach. Elusive and exotic, what these objects are or do is largely irrelevant. They merely serve as something to obtain, so that the audience may watch agents run after them like dogs chasing cars, on a scale of domestic or international intrigue.
In Eugene Lim’s new novel, Search History, cars chase dogs. Or, specifically, one dog: a cyborg created by a “dysthymic AI scientist” to “appear to the grieving as the embodiment of the deceased.” It is so convincing to one bereaved man that it launches him on a quest across continents, and into outer space. This MacGuffin’s presence in the novel should alert readers to the fact that Lim is working within pulp genre fiction. The use of the words “dysthymic” and “AI” ought to tell you that the novel is, well, employing other forms too.
Anarchic in tone and structured like a Mobius strip, Search History is Lim’s fourth book to date, and the author’s best attempt yet to graft his discursive, esoteric ideas onto the rip-roaring action of genre fiction. There is a risk of flying too close to the sun; the wax that holds this story together is warm. This is especially apparent in the novel’s two prologues, which seem included less for the reader’s benefit than as some authorial throat-clearing. Here, the narrative is still molten. The dysthymic AI scientist appears at first as a contrivance, written by “a robot named César Aira,” who leaves his work unfinished to attend an art party in Chelsea with his divorced wife, until “the fiction transforms them into two young women” soldering cell phones at a factory in Dongguan, China, then transforms them again, a few pages later, “into a plastic bag and the nubbin from a little-used toddler teething ring” floating among other refuse in the Atlantic Ocean — where they continue to opine about the politics of “yellowface” and aesthetics of autotune.
Following me so far? There is a storyline in Search History, but, as journalist Charles Glass notes of Salman Rushdie’s novels, outlining the plot is “a futile exercise in a brief review […]. It’s like a Marx Brothers movie, easier to enjoy than to analyze.” Throughout the body of the novel, an unnamed man (who, like Lim, is Korean-American and lives in Queens), chases the cyborg dog, which is either the reincarnation of his late friend Frank Exit or has somehow been enabled by deep learning to appear that way. This slippage between Buddhism and cybernetic simulacrum is typical of Lim, who seems to understand each as a means to the same end: a way of tap-dancing around the void of death.
Interspersed are chapters with titles like “Inauthentic Sushi” and “The Basement Food Court of Forking Paths,” in which a small group of friends (some of whom also knew Frank but are otherwise unrelated to the main character’s quest) sit around eating and discussing art, artificial intelligence, and the politics of representation and Asian identity in contemporary culture. In one of the novel’s many recurring motifs, these conversations are “recorded” as a slice of reality — seeds of data to give another AI scientist, who is trying to code an algorithm that will spit out award-winning literary novels. (“She’s aiming for a Pulitzer or an NBA shortlist but is willing to accept a PEN/Faulkner.”)
As with everything else in the story, these conversations don’t quite read as real. One of the great jokes of the novel, and one I am certain Lim is in on, is the way that, on its surface, it seems to fail to cohere, composed of recognizable narrative forms that elbow disjointedly against one another. Just the sort of book an AI would write. The best compliment I can give Search History is that the great rewards of its reading come from the risks of its experimentalism; it is a success that sticks its landing quite close to failure.
Both narrative threads are notable for their interruptions, flashbacks, and long-winded soliloquies, which would handicap the plots were they not so intentionally the point. Though he has a fanboy’s love of blockbuster action, Lim’s fiction is more reminiscent of French New Wave films like Breathless, in which climactic violence is crude, expedient, and usually offscreen. What’s left are the moments of idling, the attitudes of the characters toward one another. Performativity and affect float freely in space, scenes cut abruptly, and between them the narrative is allowed an unencumbered descent into essayistic asides of political musing or personal reflection.
Search History even gives a direct nod to this cinematic form, when one of the lunching monologists, Muriel, notes that “That sense of discontinuity—a term cinema uses for an error in sequencing that results in the absurd—that comes from death arises from the non-coterminous nature of life’s various impermanences.” In this version of discontinuity, the disjunctions of narrative are used to call attention to the great disjunction of life: death. Abrupt, jagged, and — absent some ancient faith or futuristic technology — painfully permanent.
The most pleasant of Search History’s many surprises is the fact that it’s really a story about grief, and is poignant and cogent in extolling this pain. The artifice of genre is everywhere, but it never stops the characters from working through their feelings. In a novel bursting with action, finding room for just about every kind of expression or thought (and in just 187 pages!), Lim also includes two “Autobiographical Interludes” — elegies for his mother and an anonymous deceased friend, clearly a model for the mysterious Frank Exit, whom everyone here is trying to revive or retrieve.
People get away from us in death. By chasing them, and holding onto their memories, we perpetuate them and ourselves in mortality’s great procrastination game, the business of life. Lim’s talent is his ability to conjure this action — in the superficial form of the dramatic chase —without ever losing focus of what’s waiting at the door. The far side of the moon, for example, serves as the final destination for the scientist and her dog, “terraformed […with] a small fortress […] away from the pestering calls of heads of state and immediate family.” But while we may imagine a Bond villain’s lair, at no point do we lose sight of the fact that it also represents heaven, or simply a place beyond which the heroes can catch up with the people they long for.
To Lim, such chases are vital. And in his hands the MacGuffin, long since revealed as an insubstantial engine of plot, takes on a metaphysical heft. “Because after long enough you forget what you wanted, what you were going for, so that the search becomes where you live, its history your universe. Even if you bet your entire life on this MacGuffin. Especially if you did. […] History’s habit, landmarks, and tone are what make you. So, dog, I’ll throw the stick and you chase it. Yes Master. Okay dog.”
Search History by Eugene Lim is published by Coffee House Press and available in stores and online.
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