by Eugene Lim
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$14.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374537111
By Noah Sanders
If you’ve ever spent a single moment in a writing class, you’ll have probably heard the one platitude that seems to stretch throughout all: “Show, don’t tell.” It is, of course, the idea that in writing, you should trust your reader’s intelligence enough to just dump the guts of your book—its theme, its character development, its narrative arc—directly on to the page. Instead, authors, to varying degrees of success, bury their ledes in symbolism and plot and the interactions of their characters through dialogue in the hope that their readers will be experienced enough to find, or decipher, meaning within.
Dear Cyborgs, the experimental work of science fiction by Eugene Lim, holds to this maxim with a death-like grip. Lim’s short, sometimes satisfying, novel is a nesting doll of vignettes, both broadly science-fiction and emotionally intimate. There are definite themes to which Lim is addressing—art, revolution, the concept of invisibility—and in various forms they make themselves known, but the author’s means of delivering these themes is so abstract, reading Dear Cyborgs becomes a chore of literary detection. We, as readers, are tasked at so many times—with so many characters and plot points—to, well, figure out just who’s who and what’s what, that the themes Lim has artfully buried become overly difficult to identify.
To describe the plot of Dear Cyborgs—a scant 163 pages—isn’t an easy task. There are four main narrative lines as the book begins: two childhood friends lose contact, a group of four friends meet nightly to discuss the philosophical bends of their lives, a super spy meets the same villainous woman over and over again, and this same villainous woman abandons her family to try and find meaning in her own life. Dissecting the philosophical meanderings of any of the four main plot-lines (not to say the smaller, stories-within-stories that comprise each of them) is a task within itself. His quartet of artists-cum-philosophers are the most blatant in their philosophical noodling—their conversations act as reflections and prompt for the ideas in the more opaque sections—but even within them, Lim seems reticent to just lay out what he’s trying to say. One character, speaking of another character’s decision to use fast food chains as her place of meditation, speaks to the shortcomings of doing just that, nicely summing up a bigger idea in the book: that just existing within the corrupt means of society might not actually be that bad. “Maybe Muriel,” he says, “should use [these shortcomings] to proceed with her own desires—at least those desires that she can somehow maintain as her desires, as somehow independent and free and not deformed by these humiliations and degradations.” The response from the listeners is an awkward silence, as if the author himself, suddenly aware of laying his own cards out on the table, can’t fathom the possibility.
It becomes frustrating, because Lim has written a book rife with interesting ideas. Each of his plot-lines run, somewhat, parallel to each other, all of them asking a similar question: what do we sacrifice for our art, for our own form of revolution? And Lim, in his own cryptic way, answers these questions, but the work to dig out these answers, dust them off and put them on the shelf, is too much. It’s a book that demands a second read—even a reading guide, if one was available—but finding your way down its labyrinthine path once, may be enough.
The final chapter of the book is the decoder ring for everything that’s come before. It’s Lim’s attempt to throw back the curtain, and show just how the magic trick was pulled off. And yes, it does clarify, somewhat, that there was method to Lim’s madness, but it doesn’t make the process of getting to that point any more enjoyable. And perhaps, this is exactly what Lim hoped, that by challenging his readers up to the very end, that his ideas would transcend his plot. That in writing a book about art and revolution and their limitations, he would have to create his own work of art with its own limitations. Perhaps an ‘enjoyable read’ isn’t what Lim was reaching for, instead, maybe, he wanted to craft something that somehow, as it exists on the periphery of genre, felt familiar enough for readers to want to decode, even if failure was the inevitable outcome. Regardless of what he intended, the book loses itself in its vagueness, the occasional burst of understanding a life-preserver to cling to as the reader hurtles forward. Sometimes, just sometimes, a little bit of telling, just makes the show a little more bearable.