Flux by Jinwoo Chong (Melville House, 2023).
Since moving to the Bay Area in 2018, I have felt unmoored in time. “A few days ago,” I might begin a story, only to realize the event happened last month. Time—keeping it, writing with an understanding of how it ticks along—has never been my strong suit. Add to this a pandemic and a climate without seasons (sensory cues to the passage of time) and I… give up. I set alarms in fifteen-minute increments. A quote tacked above my writing desk is Nabokov’s: “I confess I do not believe in time.”
What does this mean for my reading of a time-travel novel? I confess my interest in Flux has less to do with the novel’s speculative elements, and more to do with Jinwoo Chong’s perceptive rendering of the way grief makes the mind stretch, and distort, time.
Flux opens with the narrator’s direct address to Thomas Raider, the main character of a television show the narrator has watched compulsively since childhood. The reader learns who this narrator, Brandon, is, and what’s important to him, by what he says to Raider:
For real, man, I loved you. I hate what’s become of you, what they say about you, that you’re derivative, that you’re toxic, be- cause none of it is your fault. Because every day after school I was the kid busting out the tapes and watching the scratchy re- runs from the ’80s until I was yelled at…Raider was one of the only shows putting Asians on TV… There were no queers on Raider, not that I remember. You were a gruff straight boy prone to violence and a single word doing the work of ten.
Understanding why Brandon is enamored with Raider comes in time. First, Brandon is fired from his magazine job, receives two months’ severance, buys an expensive leather bag that may or may not be a knock-off, and falls into an elevator shaft. How far does he fall? Does he die? The reader needs to wait to find out. Already, the book is glitching into a new timeline.
We’re in the future now, when 48-year-old Blue receives an implant restoring his ability to speak, so he can appear as a key witness against Io Emsworth, the dethroned billionaire founder of Flux—a startup that ostensibly makes ever-lasting batteries—who is on trial for murder. And then it’s the past, Christmas morning. Bo is eight and his mother has died in a tragic accident. Any reader who doesn’t skip epigraphs will realize, long before the revelation, that Brandon, Bo, and Blue are one.
If this plot sounds complicated in synopsis, know that I’ve left out a lot. The novel’s excesses at times reminded me of Everything Everywhere All at Once—queer love and everything bagels, intergenerational trauma and googly-eyed rocks. It’s a playful chaos, but the choice works better on film, where we can understand the characters’ relationships through body language and movement. Moments to connect with Brandon in Flux are also well-drawn but buried, especially in the first section. One of the simplest aspects of Brandon’s characterization, however, is his queerness. He sleeps with men and women. A male partner asks if he’s gay and he replies, “I don’t know. I’m both…. I have better luck with boys than girls.” How refreshing to encounter a narrator who isn’t hung up on naming his identity, but rather shrugs and enjoys the sex.