A Twenty-First Century Invisible Man?

“American exceptionalism is starting to undergo a degradation and feel more and more like revisionist history, especially when it comes to this country’s ties to imperialism, slavery, the genocide of indigenous people.”

-Jinwoo Chong

In Flux, his new, ambitious first novel which mixes the surrealistic with science fiction, Jinwoo Chong keeps his characters in near constant motion, and, like a virtuoso author, invites readers to participate in and to co-create meaning. An English major at Georgetown with an MFA from Columbia, and the child of Korean American parents, Chong has crafted a literary puzzle in which intriguing words, phrases and sentences bounce off the page. Reading Flux can feel like playing a video game or a pinball machine. Take for example, the descriptions of a phone that lives in the same bed in which the main character, Brandon, sleeps.

One morning he wakes, sees the phone under his pillow, digs it out and reads the time. A few pages further on, the same sentence reappears, only this time Chong provides the near precise time on the phone: almost eight a.m. The identical sentence shows up again and again and again and again with one or two slight variations.

What’s going on? A reader might ask. Can’t Chong write the sentence and leave it be? One answer might be that Brandon is a creature of his phone and addicted to it. When the author wants to convey information he shows rather than tells. Also, when he infuses his novel with ideas, he usually allows the characters to express them rather than convey them directly to the reader in his own voice. One protagonist says, “There is so much goddamn corporate obfuscation around buzzwords and meaningless lingo.” He adds, “Our planet is dying. We no longer have the resources to sustain our growth.”

“Flux” is the name of the goddamn corporation that cannibalizes Chong, using him as a human guinea pig for its experiments with time, space and the workings of the mind. Reading the novel, one might wonder if we’re all human guinea pigs in the big social laboratory in which the powers-that-be experiment with fascistic games, media, language and the tools of repression.

In the brave new world that unfolds in Flux, Brandon is an Adam who falls from his own illusory paradise and descends into a strange and terrifying world in which “everything goes white.” Early in the novel, Brandon literally tumbles down an elevator shaft and is never quite the same again; a human being in free fall and alienated from himself and at times a character in an existentialist work of fiction.

Flux stands out as a novel with ideas, dramatic scenes, and shifts in genre. It will likely appeal to readers brought up on narratives that explore time and space and at the same time illuminate social issues. The epigraph at the front of the novel comes from H. G. Wells’s classic The Time Machine. The narrator observes that he has “the feeling of prolonged falling” and that he is “flung headlong through the air.”                                                                   If Chong’s anti-hero is addicted to his phone, he’s also addicted to a 1980s TV show called Raider which stands out from the normal fare of programs on the screen because it features an Asian detective, and that, as Brandon himself explains, “defined an entire genre of television.” The TV cop is nearly as real for Brandon as any of the human beings he encounters, including a young woman named Min who flickers briefly across the screen of his life and who asks him “Are you Korean?”

At first he doesn’t know what to say. After all, he’s confused about his identity, ethnicity, sexuality and gender. In response to Min’s question, he says, “Yes. On my mother’s side.” Like a few of the other characters in the book, he belongs to what he calls “the hybrid generations.”

Chong usually disdains labels and rightly so. They often obfuscate as much as they clarify. Still, it’s probably fair to say that he shares common ground with authors in the field of Korean American fiction that has grown steadily and that promises to keep on growing. The more books by Asian American writers the better for “eccentricity and experimentation.”

So says Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, inspired Chong and helped open the door to authors who want to go beyond white American stereotypes of Asians as bad drivers, and genuses at math who all look alike.

Melville House, Chong’s publisher, aptly describes Flux as “neo-noir” and “an exploration of the cyclical nature of grief, of moving past trauma, and of the pervasive nature of whiteness within the development of Asian identity in America.” On the eve of the 2022 midterm elections, Chong emailed me to say “an important note to make might be that American exceptionalism is starting to undergo a degradation and feel more and more like revisionist history, especially when it comes to this country’s ties to imperialism, slavery, the genocide of indigenous people.”

Io Emsworth, a billionaire and the founder of Flux, serves as the femme fatale in a novel that’s definitely dark and that definitely takes a deep dive into the nature of white America. For much of the time in which the story unfolds, snow falls steadily and blankets the ground in an unnamed city where Brandon lives and works and finds himself unemployed, but a useful resource for the corporation.

Flux reminded me of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a powerful exploration of whiteness and blackness, in which snow falls in Chicago, where the main character, Bigger Thomas, a Black man employed by a wealthy family, murders Mary, a young white woman. Flux might also invite readers to recall Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, another exploration of blackness, whiteness and identity and one of Chong’s favorite twentieth century American novels.

Flux is definitely a work of fiction for twenty-first century readers who won’t be driven away by phrases such as “Blowjob Bathroom” and who won’t need a translation for “You want me to spoon you?” If the novel has a flaw it might be that its (too) many characters—Jem, Gil, Lev and Kaz—crowd Brandon and don’t have nearly enough room to emerge as “rounded” and not remain “flat” to use two teacher words.

During a Zoom interview, Chong told me “I don’t feel Asian. I consider myself mostly American.” He added “whiteness is America and America is whiteness.” That troubles him. Born in 1995 in the U.S. to Korean American parents who speak Korean far better than he, Chong was raised in Princeton, New Jersey where he attended high school. He explained that Flux flowed from a short story titled “Six Enumerated Complications of Gravity “about a person addicted to a sense of weightlessness.”

While writing the novel during the pandemic, he says, he became aware of his “own poisoning by the Internet and pop culture.” Flux isn’t about a pandemic, but the pandemic affected Chong’s state of mind. “For six months, it seemed unstoppable,” he says. “I thought I could get the virus and die. It was a traumatic experience. I stayed at home. I think the pandemic helped me write better.”

Is Flux autobiographical?  “Brandon is and isn’t me,” Chong says. “He’s biracial. I’m not. People look at my face and know I’m Asian. In the novel, the other characters look at him and they’re not sure who or what he is.” A work of fiction that Chong recommends is No-No Boy (1957) by John Okada, a Japanese American writer that’s about a Japanese American who refuses to fight for the U.S. in World War II and serves two years in prison and another two years in an internment camp.                                                                         Would Chong fight for the US, or would he be another “no-no boy” like the character in Okada’s novel? “I used to feel proud to be an American, somewhat, but not anymore,” Chong says. “Societal failures are swept under the rug by advertising and by elected politicians who seem to want to destroy our core values. People in the rest of the world are well aware of America’s problems.”

Flux ends with a question and without any clear answers. One of the characters walks “away from a life he was not a part of and no longer could be.” He has “just one question: what was going to happen next?” For Chong, what will happen next for sure is the publication of his novel. Nothing can stop it now, not even a blizzard and a wall of whiteness. Will it become another Invisible Man? Perhaps. It seems likely to start out as a kind of underground work with a cult following. And then what? Anything is possible in a world in which everything is in flux.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.