Dear Cyborgs
  • March 21, 2018


  • Eugene Lim

    4Dear Cyborgs
    2The End of Eddy

    Édouard Louis

  • Judged by

    Rumaan Alam

The End of Eddy

I’ll begin by admitting that I don’t think I’m the reader for either Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs or Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy. This is important. Yes, both of these books feel particularly specialized, but if I am not their target that’s a flaw of my own, not these novels. I’ll try to understand the books all the same.

Rumaan Alam’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel Rich and Pretty. His novel That Kind of Mother will be published in 2018. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I know Gabe Habash a bit.”

Sure, experimental is a fairly useless term, but I’m hard pressed to think how to describe Dear Cyborgs. The jacket’s marketing copy celebrates (accuses?) Lim of “gleefully toying with the conventions of the novel.” If there is glee here, I didn’t see it. Dear Cyborgs is a nest of narratives, which mostly begin and never conclude, juxtaposed just so, daring the reader to find meaning therein. It’s like the Bible, only more political, since political thought seems to be the novel’s sole constant.

Here’s the book’s narrator on a story he hoped to write:

What was expected was a slightly modified coming-of-age novel that traded on my Korean-American identity. Something not too obviously an assimilation tale—and above all clever—yet also something not too much a deviation from that sellable idea, so that the marketplace of culture could easily absorb my story without being too discomfited.

Dear Cyborgs would seem to be that project, especially in the way it values “above all” cleverness. We move from a story of two boys bonding over comic books to one of a trio of adult friends grappling with adulthood to one of superheroes in pursuit of their archenemy. Untangling these threads is beside the point. Here’s a snippet from near the book’s end:

We’re still simple narrative animals, that’s the undergirding structure of us. It’s still lizard brain underneath. Hunt, fuck, eat. Tell us something about that. Whisper what our lizard brains need to know. Tell us an old tale of desire and mystery.

By this brief book’s conclusion that’s how I felt: lizard-brained. I don’t think Dear Cyborgs was indicting me for that, but maybe I’m not canny enough to understand when I’m being insulted. Still, I wanted to shout at the book: Tell me something! Of course, it does. There’s a scene where one of the characters stumbles into a massive protest; it nicely articulates some of the text’s huge purview:

…climate disasters, of which the varieties were sublisted (drought, floods, fire, storms, famine, lost species and cities); the purchasing of politicians; war profiteering; carcinogens in our food; the overmilitarized police force; covert and overt racism; mass incarceration and disenfranchisement; the calculated intentional impoverishment of a working class; the nonstop production of sweet moral anesthesia for the consumer class; alienation; triumphalism; ugliness; etc.

Maybe it’s useful to think of Dear Cyborgs as an experiment in form. The book steadfastly declines to offer that old tale of desire and mystery, reimagining the novel as something far from sweet moral anesthesia.

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If we accept Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy as autofiction, which seems to be the critical consensus, then the book is like Dear Cyborgs: one interested in form. Autofiction is what we term the spinning of one’s life into art, or at least, it’s the term we use if the book in question is highbrow enough. Further, assuming the fidelity of translator Michael Lucey, the book tells its tale in a straightforward manner, the style of no style.

The End of Eddy is a take-no-prisoners account of Eddy Belleguele’s treatment in provincial (not provençal) France. Dad’s a bastard, mom’s a bitch, his siblings and cousins are grotesque, the village is full of assholes, yet Eddy, tormented by his peers and himself for his homosexuality, seems the biggest boor in these pages.

If it’s the tale of his own life, Louis lays bare how little perspective he has on what he’s lived through. His dad watches too much television; the family is poor; his brother is fat; everyone drinks too much. Louis doesn’t explore this with much depth or empathy; instead, he underscores, with various absurd asides, his superficial suppositions: “working-class people,” “the omnipresent television,” “money worries” are all tucked into parentheses between the other limp sentences, as though that explained it all.

The charitable reading is that Louis wants us to understand that he hates these very things in himself, too; he’s a product of these people. Many readers love this book. I get it. Gay readers like me can read of Eddy being mocked for his girlish run from the safe distance of our adulthood. We empathize with Eddy; we were him.

I also think there’s something deeply erotic about this catalog of abuse; the novel is like a von Trier film. Who doesn’t like a bit of eroticism? Two bullies beat Eddy and make him lap up their spit, and it’s much the same as an act of group sex that transpires between him and his cousin and their pals. Louis understands sex: “Once my hands had taken on the smell of their genitals, I wouldn’t wash them; I’d spend hours sniffing at them, like an animal. They smelled like what I was.”

Of course every teenage boy thinks he’s the first to discover that sex is dirty and delicious. This bit of shock is the nearest the author gets to the sublime; mostly the book is ridiculous. There’s a scene where Eddy tries, fruitlessly, to ejaculate over a photograph of a naked woman. It becomes a metaphor for the book itself: a session of masturbation so prolonged it turns to pain without offering any actual relief.

The narrative is inconsistent and repetitive, the language is lazy; you’ll either be seduced or you won’t. (The marketing of this book did much to remind us how handsome the author is. Who wouldn’t be seduced?) The whole enterprise is redeemed (well, sort of) with a tart and ironic conclusion but mostly I felt the end of The End of Eddy could not come soon enough.

I love the novel as a form, though I appreciate writers who fiddle with its conventions all the same. It’s gutsy. Dear Cyborgs tampers with the reader’s expectations and the precedent set by generations of writers who came before him. The End of Eddy wants us to feel that artlessness is a bold aesthetic choice. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that sometimes effort warrants an A.

TODAY’S WINNER: Dear Cyborgs

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Match Commentary

By Carolyn Kellogg & Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin: Today we’re joined by Carolyn Kellogg. Carolyn is the book editor of the Los Angeles Times, and I’m deep in her debt: When I first moved to Los Angeles, she showed where to find some of the better martinis. Carolyn, you judged the Tournament in 2010. What was it like when the books arrived in your mailbox?

Carolyn Kellogg is the book editor of the Los Angeles Times. For six years, she served on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Carolyn Kellogg: It was so much fun. I was far enough into my career as a Serious Literary Journalist and Reviewer of Books that it was a welcome relief to be able to be reckless! And use swear words! But not so far that you didn’t think that I might do something ridiculous like throw the books off a porch to decide my final vote. (I really hated those two books.) I would not be as reckless in writing my judgment now, but I am still mad that I advanced Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, which should have won, only to have it rejected by Andrew W.K.! He found it too hard to read and quit after a few pages, which was insanely wrong. But there you go: The Rooster boldly allows judges to be idiosyncratic.

Rosecrans: What do you think of the decision here today, specifically his criteria?

Carolyn: So here we are, with Judge Alam being, as he says, not the right reader for these two books—while clearly someone before him was. I wish he’d gotten one book that was less experimental in the match, so we could see his process of contrasting a book that he finds narratively satisfying against one that pushes against those boundaries. That said, having someone wrestle with these two books that are formally inventive has its own balance.

Overall, I feel like the thing that was lacking was satisfaction. It appears to me that Judge Alam felt both these novels were un-artful. That’s super frustrating as a reader.

Rosecrans: How do you mean?

Carolyn: The judge seemed to me dissatisfied—as if these books were like a dinner that was too small or tasteless. There are many ways to dislike a book, perhaps as many ways as there are books, but being unsatisfied is particularly annoying, because it means you didn’t get out of the book the basic minimum that you’d hoped. And our time on this planet is precious, and there are lots of delicious books sitting out there on the buffet, and you could be eating one of them. Well, you know what I mean.

Rosecrans: I had a difficult time with both books and still enjoyed them. In both cases I wanted more clarity on a deeper level. In Dear Cyborgs, there’s plenty I admired in the fireworks of language (even when I didn’t understand what was being said), the shifts in storytelling (even when I couldn’t follow what was going on). As the judge wrote, an “experiment in form.” But a bigger challenge for me, I couldn’t find my way to what was going on behind the experiment, beneath the layers—the puzzle at the novel’s core. That’s my problem, not the book’s, but it meant the novel remained an intellectual exercise for me and unalive.

Then for The End of Eddy, I agree with the judge that there was a lack of depth and a one-note-ness that irritated me. And yet, here too, I was captivated by the voice, the details, all the grit on the surface; even the inconsistencies were charming. (“Charm” came up in the comments the other day, when people were discussing Goodbye, Vitamin. For me it’s a must-have in a book.)

I’m not sure I can explain it, but I get frustrated by novels when, for whatever reason, I can’t reach or sense the mind inside them—whether it’s an author’s sense of irony, an author struggling to work something out within a character, and so on.

Carolyn: That’s so interesting! You have a deep affection for something that’s not one of my criteria at all. As much as I care about authors—I do both personally and as a critic interested in literary biography—I don’t need to see their sweat and brain crackle in their art. The book is the book.

But, that said, I grow tired of naturalism, which is so popular among American publishers. When I was in grad school a naturalism mantra about a window or window frame was drilled into us, exactly what and by whom I can’t remember because UGH REALLY? I don’t think the prose in a novel has to be invisible—it can call attention to itself. These are words making a pretend story come alive in your mind! That’s a crazy trick! It’s OK to play with it!

In a way now I think we are saying the same thing, from different angles—that a book is a product of work, and being able to experience or sense that project while also reading the story is, to us, enjoyable. My guess is that it’s less so for Judge Alam.

Rosecrans: You read and talk and think about books for a living. Can you sympathize with Judge Alam’s experience of wanting to shout at a novel?

Carolyn: Oh yes.

Rosecrans: Any recently?

Carolyn: None recently. I used to assiduously finish every last word of every single book I started, but I don’t do that anymore. As book editor, I see hundreds of books published each week—no one human could read them all. If I’m getting into one I don’t like, I can set it aside and spend that time and attention on another. This is totally different than being a working critic! It’s a critic’s job to have opinions both positive and negative. You’ve got to stick with a book you dislike.

The only book I’ve ever thrown across a room—actually a hallway—was my calculus textbook in high school. I was pretty good at calculus, and I wasn’t angry with the book, but it was the biggest one I was carrying and I was mad enough at something to want to chuck it and hear it thud. Stupid me, I broke the spine. And I did, as you know, once throw two books off a porch.

Rosecrans: I found myself nodding along with Judge Alam, and I see the appeal of his criteria, his “A for effort.” That, in his view, if I read him right, one of these books seemed to take more attention and effort and ambition, and he wants to reward that. It’s interesting because it’s so rooted in the judge’s personal reading experience—what he sees, how it rings, what it means to him personally. Some of the books I like best, even the most stylish ones, can appear to be effortless, yet you go through the authors’ diaries and correspondence and discover what torture they were.

Final question, and I’ll shift away from this specific judgment: What do you think of the conversation around fiction as of late?

Carolyn: On the one hand, I think the question of representation has been raised, but it’s mostly being addressed in YA and children’s literature. On the plus side for adult books, after the success of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, a number of publishers have new smart nonfiction books by outspoken black female authors. (But maybe add some more voices?) And adult fiction still seems, for the most part, to be in this weird crappy zone where mainstream publishing would rather have a new novel from “retired” Philip Roth than take that advance money and split it between a dozen new young US writers of totally different heritages—Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Chinese, Pakistani, Thai, Canadian, Peruvian, Nebraskan, Estonian, Iranian, Nepalese, mixed—to find the next Roth.

And I wish there were more conversation. What we used to write on blogs goes by quickly in microdoses on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, etc. There seems to be less conversation, and much less risk. Remember HTMLGiant? They were so rude. Those were the days.

Rosecrans: We’ll leave it at that. Thank you, Carolyn! Now over to Andrew for a quick announcement.

Andrew Womack: Thanks! And thank you to everyone for suggesting nonfiction titles for our first nonfiction event, coming in May. We’ve narrowed down our list to focus on memoir, and now we need your help to decide the three books we’ll read. Use the poll below to vote for your favorites, and we’ll announce our reading list next week!

Rosecrans: OK! Tomorrow Kevin and John will return to the booth in time for Lauren Cohen, the 2018 ToB Reader Judge, to decide between Sing, Unburied, Sing and Pachinko. See you in the comments.

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