The Dark Dark

Dear Cyborgs

9780374716417 fc
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2017
read an excerpt

One of Vol. 1 Brooklyn's Favorite Fiction Books of 2017, a Literary Hub Staff Favorite Book of 2017, and one of BOMB Magazine's "Looking Back on 2017: Literature" Selections.

"Wondrous . . . [A] sense of the erratic and tangential quality of everyday life—even if it’s displaced into a bizarre, parallel world—drifts off the page, into the world you see, after reading Dear Cyborgs." —Hua Hsu, The New Yorker

In a small Midwestern town, two Asian American boys bond over their outcast status and a mutual love of comic books. Meanwhile, in an alternative or perhaps future universe, a team of superheroes ponder modern society during their time off. Between black-ops missions and rescuing hostages, they swap stories of artistic malaise and muse on the seemingly inescapable grip of market economics.

Gleefully toying with the conventions of the novel, Dear Cyborgs weaves together the story of a friendship’s dissolution with a provocative and timely meditation on protest. Through a series of linked monologues, a lively cast of characters explores narratives of resistance—protest art, eco-terrorists, Occupy squatters, pyromaniacal militants—and the extent to which any of these can truly withstand and influence the cold demands of contemporary capitalism. All the while, a mysterious cybernetic book of clairvoyance beckons, and trusted allies start to disappear.

Entwining comic-book villains with cultural critiques, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs is a fleet-footed literary exploration of power, friendship, and creativity. Ambitious and knowing, it combines detective pulps, subversive philosophy, and Hollywood chase scenes, unfolding like the composites and revelations of a dream.

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An excerpt from Dear Cyborgs

Origin Stories

This is in Ohio. We were eleven, twelve years old, and the teacher asked us to name the number of siblings we had. “One,” most said, or, “Two.” “Zero,” a few said. I said, “One.” Vu said, “Nine.”

I burst out laughing because I’d been over to Vu’s house a lot, had read comic books on his bed and kicked the soccer ball in his backyard, and had even eaten his mom’s grilled cheese sandwiches. I’d never once seen the rustle of a brother-like or sister-like figment, ever, and so thought he was mocking the teacher. But Mrs. Clyde just moved on and no one added anything else, and Vu didn’t make any adjustments to his claim. 

When I asked him about this later, he just shrugged and said it was true, though he added, “Three are half.” I didn’t know how to pursue it and so let it drop and almost forgot about it entirely, except once in a while it would occur to me again and I would stop suddenly in the middle of something and say to myself, “Vu has nine invisible siblings.” And I did this years and years later, long after Vu had died, and even then I’d find myself out of nowhere thinking, “Somewhere in the world are Vu’s nine siblings, and I’ll never know them.”

(After doing it for some time, for years and decades, the habit of protest becomes something else, something apart from, almost irrelevant to, one’s initial desires. It becomes, to say it simply, a way of life. Or, to be more accurate if less simple: one’s initial ambitions regress into merely a way of living. Especially this is true if one is clever enough or lucky enough or cowardly enough—let’s just say lucky . . . Especially when one is lucky enough not to have been crushed. And—this is the important qualifier—it must also be said that the methods of protest one has chosen, if one after a time is not crushed, that these methods of protest must have been entirely pathetic.)

I met Vu in a dream. Or rather I met him during a time of my life so separated from what happened before and later that I think of it as a dream. Most people must feel that childhood is that way, scenes that are familiar but irretrievable, a hazy dream—but I think those years in Ohio are for me a bit further removed than is typical. I’ll try to explain. 

My father was trained as an engineer, but he worked sporadically. He had a thin skin, was a binge drinker, and had a bad temper—a result of which was that he kept getting fired. And so the family kept moving. My memory of childhood therefore, before landing in that small town where I met Vu, is less a blur than a handful of orphaned film clips, too short and too few in number to add up to much. I remember only strange bits: the taste of dark chocolate in a neighbor’s Oldsmobile, pink lotion on a girl’s sunburn, a teacher’s stare marked with hatred, a cut to my finger with my mother’s razor. Bits with no story to them but my name. 

And then at fifteen we moved again, to Chicago, and those small-town years got overwhelmed and momentarily erased by the seizures of adolescence and an immediate addiction to the convulsions of a city. And so, in this analysis, there is this bubble. An in-between time, eleven to fifteen, when I’m not quite a child and yet not an adult, where I now think, despite my feelings then of slow death through intricate paroxysms of boredom, I was nonetheless safe. And I knew I was safe, deep in my heart (perhaps crucially because I knew I didn’t matter, because we were invisible, insignificant outsiders). 

And my focus during this time of boyhood was Vu, whom I worshipped in a way I think not uncommon in boys of that age. I obsessed without acknowledging it but nonetheless with an open and even heady kind of love.

He introduced me to comic books. This, not incidentally, was also an introduction to sex and therefore adulthood, because we would gaze intensely at these idealized images, these cartoons of adult men and women in various forms of wish fulfillment or wish embroidering, in swift balletic action that echoed and manifested and were the seeds of our own desires. 

Here is one lesson that Vu taught me. It maybe doesn’t seem on the surface to be about comic books, but it is. At least if reading comic books was a sort of hedonistic, perhaps onanistic, act of defiance—and if one believes that such pursuits are coterminous with living. I’d gotten permission to spend the night at Vu’s house. We would watch TV and read comic books and listen to music and talk. His mom ordered us a pizza but other than that we didn’t see her. His father was never at home, and his mom kept to her room, so we had the run of their large and, from my point of view, deliciously shabby home. My own home, thanks to the rule of my father, in addition to the compulsions of my mother, was unforgiving in its order and cleanliness. It gleamed and was breathless and without beauty. So I first was shocked and then bewitched by the mess at the Nguyen home. (And shamefully misread its untidiness as entirely debauched, so once flung my pizza crust at the TV, which, to my confusion, appalled and enraged Vu.) 

And in the mornings, when Vu woke up, instead of going directly to the bathroom or kitchen to do the various rituals required to begin the day, he would lazily pick through his comics and read one in bed. That was the revelation: that he could do this, that he was allowed to do it, that he had even conceived of it. It had, in other words, never occurred to me at the age of fourteen that the lounging, pajama-related activity one did in the evenings, after one’s so-called homework and chores were done, could be done first thing in the morning, at the very start of the day, or really—and the extrapolation was immediately clear—one could do it whenever one wanted! 

I was made suddenly to realize—Vu and his home taught this to me—that we were more animal than routine.

(However, there is a sliver of protest still possible, which you may rightfully accuse of being worse, a reactionary or collaborative tactic, but which nonetheless is a method I have come to subscribe to and furthermore think is the only possible defiance left outside of the terminal possibilities of suicide, the morally corrupting option of guerrilla warfare, or the subtly but fundamentally distinct choice of utter acquiescence. This alone-possible and admittedly vaporous defiance is merely to live and accept one’s culpability but to try without going into heroics to participate minimally, as a parasite does, getting one’s needs and not much more, not often much more. One tries then to touch only lightly the general degradation but also to become no longer concerned with it. One becomes accepting of powerlessness, is rendered complacent and mute, but tries nonetheless to signal to other like-minded parasites, not in order to gather and foment rebellion, which would be too grandiose a goal, but simply so as to provide reflection, the mirage or actuality of company, that is, simply to make known one’s kind’s existence as a remaining possibility. In the end this contemptible character I’ve sketched, the artist, is all that remains of the initial quest for purity.) 

Later— and we discussed it only once, at night during a sleepover at my house, so perhaps we could allocate the confession to the subset of perhaps-a-dream—Vu told me a little more. In 1975, Vu’s father, who was a respected scientist and who had ties to colleagues in the United States, was being persecuted by the Communists, and the entire family, in a moment of desperation and chaos and some subterfuge, had been airlifted out of Vietnam. It may have been true that Vu wasn’t even his father’s son but that of a killed relative. I don’t think even Vu knew the entire story or the truth about his origins. 

My parents were from South Korea. We were the only Asian boys in our grade (and except for Julie Chen, we were the only Asian kids in the entire county), and this fact, along with a few others, brought us together. We bonded particularly over comic books, and our favorite was an “adult” title called MunQu, which the doughy proprietor of the mildewy comic-book store sold us with an attitude of acknowledged but silent conspiracy. It was less pornographic than “underground” in genre, meaning that what we delighted in, perhaps as much as the sighting of the occasional nipple, were its wise-ass swipes at Reagan (which we understood less as political satire than as savage pokes at our elders’ puritanism and hypocrisy) and its seemingly mature take on recreational drug use. Its titular hero was a lanky, stoner chipmunk with bizarre martial arts skills coupled with troublesome anger management problems who mostly seemed to get into political squabbles with his unreasonably drawn girlfriend, a dark-haired skip tracer named Lana. 

“Vu, you realize this’s a bestiality book.” 

“Don’t get your fingermits on it.” 

“Maybe more like mixed-race though.” 

“No poop, Perlock.” 

“You’re saying its enlightened bestiality will make it worth something.” 

“Fool, my one through ten are bagged for a reason.”

We were such outcasts that our isolation hardly pained us, as we could barely conceive of the alternative. We journeyed through junior high on an entirely separate path from the others. Almost everyone in this small town seemed to think this was for the best, but we did eventually find a group of others, those who had been shunned for their fatness or queerness or intelligence or non-Christian-ness, or some combination thereof—a familiar drama of Nerddom and xenophobia played out in small towns across the Midwest and South. The pariah status and bigotry seemed so inevitable and immutable a condition that we didn’t think to complain— with one exception, for me, and that complaint had to do with girls. That—privately, because I couldn’t admit this even to Vu—was the one glaring glandular issue for which our ostracism did acquire a clear, sharp, gut-thrust injury, which seemed to have no cure and so left me cursing gods, crazed, horny, malevolent. 

“Man, I can’t wait to get out of this shithole,” we both said, which, while true, was only one side of an eventually revealed paradox. Childhood was hell but also paradise. In retrospect it was safe because we had survived it. And so in it we were not yet destroyed or scarred or proven failures or dumb or worn-out or brokenhearted. And furthermore, the warmth of brotherhood never as cozy and pure as when the enemy surrounds, we felt happy while thinking we were suicidal. At least that was my case. Vu just got more and more angry. 

In the winter about six months before my family moved to Chicago something changed at Vu’s house, though I never fully understood what it was. I went over there one afternoon and discovered his home in even greater disarray than usual. Not abominable, but I did notice an extra layer of clutter and dirty dishes. At the same time the house seemed emptier. “Where’s your mom?” I’d asked. “Out,” he just said at first, but his mom never showed in the following days and eventually he admitted he was living alone. 

“Where are they?” 

“My dad took a job in L.A.”


“She went to help.” 

And that vague justification might have been the truth, but the fact was Vu lived alone, pretending at school that this was not the case, and telling only me. 

I tried immediately not to remember this admission so I wouldn’t feel guilty or have to think too hard on what it meant. And I was anyway distracted and excited because my father had recently announced we were going to move to Chicago at the end of the school year. Vu himself tried to shrug off his home situation, to make it seem a normal predicament, but even then I knew it bothered him. A fourteen-year-old boy is capable of taking care of himself, and what’s more wants to believe he can, but no matter how he approached the situation, Vu knew he had been abandoned. He responded by hardening. If this is the right way to say it, Vu started to become around that time too comfortable with his own loneliness. Already a self- sufficient person, I saw him develop a haughtiness, an imperiousness that added another layer to his untouchability so that, for instance, even teachers seemed reluctant to engage or call on him.

In class, Vu was constantly doodling comic book heroes. Simply by proximity, it seems, I began to follow suit, and though I was much less naturally talented, through hours and hours of practice I’d managed to become a decent drawer. We’d started making comics together, just strips or sight gags, but also not a few minibooks of simple adventure or sometimes wicked revenge fantasies. We never really discussed them, just did them, on silent afternoons or through the swapping of notebooks throughout the school day. 

In Ohio, drawing was useful mostly as a way to kill time during those boring hours of invisibility. When I got to Chicago I was surprised and delighted to find it actually had some social cachet, and through it I discovered a group of friends. By the time high school was finishing I’d even found a girlfriend, a half-Taiwanese girl who played keyboards for a not-awful band. I drew all their concert posters. By which I mean I drew three flyers for one afternoon performance at a coffee house. 

And when I got to Chicago, almost in a superstitious way, and also maybe in a cruel way that has to do with a past love, I never tried again to get in touch with Vu.

Two days before we were to leave for Chicago, I spent one last night at Vu’s house. It was the very beginning of summer vacation, and the week before, in the steamy last days of school, Vu had taken me aside to tell me he’d gotten us two tabs of acid. I wasn’t surprised he could get them—our town like many small towns was awash in drugs—but I was surprised he wanted to try it. We hadn’t even smoked cigarettes, let alone pot, and we hadn’t yet tried to drink from the unopened boxes of Johnnie Walker bottles I’d seen in his dad’s office. Maybe the comics could again be blamed. MunQu was penned, it was clear, by middle-aged hippies who often visited altered states and thought their access to these a natural right. 

Taking drugs is a leap of faith—a secular, often doomed one: faith that it will be worth it, faith that you won’t die, that it will all be okay—which is a leap I made out of love. Vu lived alone and even I was leaving him. Why not drop acid together? 

I was on his floor looking at a Chris Claremont X-Men. He was reading something too, a Philip K. Dick novel called Valis, which he’d wanted me to read but that I hadn’t gotten around to. My eyes were on the comic book, but I wasn’t really looking at it because I knew he had the LSD and that we were going to take it. But, for some reason when I’d come over, instead of getting straight to it, we’d gone about our normal business, eating chips and reading comics and listening to music. Then, as if some internal clock had said it was time, Vu closed his book, rummaged through his backpack, and took out an envelope. 

He handed me a blotter of the drug, a small piece of paper with a picture of Felix the Cat on it. We each put a tab on our tongue and then, wordlessly, went back to our reading. Two hours later we were lying down in his carpeted living room looking up and talking excitedly about the morphing animations the drug was creating out of his stucco popcorn ceiling. He saw frothy tsunamis while I was seeing running Ku Klux Klansmen— both illusions we took, fortunately, not only as benign but hilarious. A little after midnight we gorged on cold pizza and soda pop and by dawn we were coming down. 

I was smiling when I left in the late morning, even though I was very sad to go. He smiled too. It had been a smart way to say goodbye. The next few days I was a mess. Hungover in a fragile way, I was tearful and quiet, which I was grateful my parents attributed, perhaps in a way correctly, to the trauma of the move.

Eugene lim interview

"Weird Utopian Techno-Wonderfulness"

A Conversation

Eugene Lim & Jeremy Davies

  • "Two radically different story lines—one involving a short-lived friendship between two Asian-American boys in the Midwest, the other an ongoing philosophical debate amongst a team of superheroes—are cleverly tied together in this short, sly, unorthodox novel . . . The core relationships, whether they’re between estranged childhood friends or opinionated superhumans, are real and profoundly moving."

    Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "Dear Cyborgs . . . sings the tune of language itself, music that Gertrude Stein and Gordon Lish could get behind, wherein the sentence is less a part than a whole unto itself."

    Josh Cook, Virginia Quarterly Review
  • “One of the smartest, strangest books I’ve read. This is a document of a side of the Midwest that goes largely uncelebrated: the population of tech-savvy, art-forward, and too often marginalized voices that shape the region’s identity from the edges. Dear Cyborgs is brilliant in its blending of academic investigation and pop-culture tropes, and structurally invigorating from start to finish. I'm not quite sure what to call it, other than a total blast.”

    Robert Martin, Midwest Independent Booksellers Association
  • "Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs is a secret tunnel fresh with cool, strange storms. What is it to be super? What is it to be beyond? Dear Cyborgs is ripe with mysteries, heroes, even heartache."

    Samantha Hunt, author of Mr. Splitfoot
  • "Eugene Lim tells his sly superhero tales in a kind of hard-boiled deadpan—a voice at once incongruously comic and playfully soulful. Beneath the dry wit there’s an ache of loneliness, an echo of every comic-book reader’s yearning for the camaraderie of the super team, the intimate enmity of the nemesis."

    Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes
  • "[An] entertaining reflection on art, resistance, heroes, and villains . . . eerily reflective of our fractured times, darting from subject to subject with the speed of a mouse click. A colorful meditation on friendship and creation nested within a fictional universe."

    Kirkus Reviews
  • "Eugene Lim is amazing because he's really adventurous with form and style ... It's so hard to break apart fiction and do something really unusual with it, and to do it so gracefully."

    Dennis Cooper
  • Praise for The Strangers:"Beautifully written, so precise and accurate to real life."

    Lydia Davis "Beautiful, original, with delicious surprises lurking at the heart of sentences, of events, of all the engines of communication."
  • "In this debut novel . . . Eugene Lim doesn’t as much collect and catalogue the fragments of lives shared, as artfully piece them into a puzzle reflective of players whose moves were induced by seemingly inconsequent forces . . . [A] phenomenal ability to nestle revelatory gems in the corners of his muscular text."

    Erin McKnight, Bookslut
  • "Wondrous . . . [Lim's] writing is confident and tranquil; he has a knack for making everyday life seem strange—or, in the case of Dear Cyborgs, for making revolution seem like the most natural thing possible. His writing is transfixing from page to page, filled with digressive meditations on small talk and social protest, superheroes, terrorism, the art world, and the status of being marginal . . . There’s an intoxicating, whimsical energy on every page. Everything from radical art to political protest gets absorbed into the rhythms of everyday life . . . [A] sense of the erratic and tangential quality of everyday life—even if it’s displaced into a bizarre, parallel world—drifts off the page, into the world you see, after reading Dear Cyborgs."

    Hua Hsu, The New Yorker's Page Turner
  • "Lim's third novel might be the most delightful read you'll find all summer . . . Through seamlessly incorporated meditations on political protest and radical art, Dear Cyborgs is an effortless page turner that dares the reader to believe in the power of the imagination."

    Anelise Chen, The Village Voice
  • "Eugene Lim's Dear Cyborgs is a novel of ideas, small, elegant ideas about art and protest, and one of the most striking literary works to emerge from the Occupy movement . . . The possible futility, complicity, and co-optation of protest are the ideas Dear Cyborgs circles around without ever giving up on the idea that resistance is essential . . . I had expected the decade's wave of protests to yield a raft of conventional social novels—some earnest, some satirical, perhaps not a few reactionary—but in Dear Cyborgs Lim has delivered something far more idiosyncratic, intricate, and useful: a novel that resists and subverts conventions at every turn."

    Christian Lorentzen, New York
  • "[Dear Cyborgs] is stuffed with more complex ideas than many books three times its size . . . The ultimate message of Dear Cyborg remains open to interpretation, but adventurous readers will be glad they teamed up with Lim."

    Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle
  • "I think it is rare to encounter self-aware, genre-spliced postmodernism that is this worldly and purposeful, or pop that is this utilitarian, serious and searching, or timely state-of-the-nation reckonings that are this optimistic, open, and kindhearted. The union of seeming opposites, co-existing across 163 pages is, for me, a reason to be cheerful . . . [Dear Cyborgs] is quite an achievement."

    JW McCormack and Rosie Clarke, Electric Literature
  • "This book sets out to defy categorization, and it thoroughly succeeds. A wild and wildly intelligent work, Dear Cyborgs skillfully employs elements of essay, noir, fantasy, and pop in order to question the limitations of identity in the Internet age."

    Robert Martin, Rain Taxi Review
  • "A short but important novel . . . Lim['s] experiments with form . . . willingly mutate and fragment to mimic fractured lives and disaggregated worlds. It's a quirk that becomes a virtue in a novel about austerity, art, and everyday politics."

    Jonathon Sturgeon, The Baffler
  • "Dear Cyborgs is as daring and exciting as it is thoughtful, and perhaps disheartening only because of the context in which it exists."

    Thomas Michael Duncan, Necessary Fiction
  • "Dear Cyborgs is a novel about art and resistance, and how they may spur each other on, or frustrate their respective goals. In structure it resembles the great mid-century metafictions . . . Eugene Lim’s super-comrades, with their cultural disaffection and nuanced political opinions, offer a rather more compelling version of a collective consciousness."

    David Hobbs, Times Literary Supplement
  • Praise for The Strangers:"Beautifully written, so precise and accurate to real life."

    Lydia Davis
  • "Beautiful, original, with delicious surprises lurking at the heart of sentences, of events, of all the engines of communication."

    Harry Mathews
  • Praise for Fog and Car:"In this astonishing, assured first novel Eugene Lim intertwines elegant poetics with a fantastic plot, rife with love, mystery, malaise, and the supernatural. His gift for ingenious, startling permutations of language and plot make for a memorable, mesmerizing read. It was hard for me to put Fog and Car down; harder for me to stop thinking about."

    Lynn Crawford
  • "Dear Cyborgs is a novel of the future. It’s surprising, and—while giving despair its full measure—it’s surprisingly inspiring. A Bolano-esque labyrinth of shaggy dog stories flow through the narrator, describing the existential and physical conditions of a present in which it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but it’s written in calm and succinct, elegant prose. Lim nails the amnesia of sensory overload perfectly."

    Chris Kraus, BOMB