Book Review: Flux by Jinwoo Chong
By Doreen SheridanMay 4, 2023
Brandon is twenty-eight years old when he’s laid off from his comfortable job working in magazine publishing. Feeling spun out, he makes a series of questionable choices, the absolute nadir of which may be deciding to look over his shoulder behind him while walking into what he assumes is a waiting elevator. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that despite probably being in the middle of a messy breakup with his boyfriend, he at least has a dinner date with someone new:
Min said she liked Korean food, commercial and authentic, she didn’t have a preference. There was a fine line growing finer between the two in the city. I was talking about the places in the lobbies of luxury condominiums that sold galbi tacos with kimchi pico de gallo. Compare that against the basement holes deep in the heart of K-town where one grandma cooked all twenty-five broths and cut the noodles herself. I used to be able to tell them apart. They grew closer and closer together until it could hardly be said which had adopted the other. Who was to say this was not the ultimate goal of immigration itself?
Like himself, Min has one Korean parent, a similarity they bond over. Brandon, however, has found that as he ages, his mother’s Asian features seem to be leaching away from the image he sees reflected back in the mirror. His worries about his identity are swiftly overtaken by a more pressing question though: how to continue supporting himself in an already expensive city.
It’s a stroke of luck, perhaps, that he almost immediately receives an offer to join Flux, the groundbreaking start-up that promises to provide the world with unlimited energy by ostensibly solving the enigma of perpetual motion. Of course, anyone with any scientific grounding knows that this is utter nonsense, and that the examples given by the company are hardly pertinent to the closed system of a standalone battery. Even Brandon suspects that something is amiss, long before he realizes that he’s losing time and being promoted way too quickly for…doing what exactly?
When he gets the chance to confront Flux’s iconic founder about whether the company has actually started producing the battery it promises, he takes it. Her answers are far from reassuring:
“Let me ask you something: what if we haven’t?” she said, finally. “What would you do then? Would you act any differently?”
“I would stop lying to myself.”
“No, I don’t think you would,” she said. “I don’t think you can accurately estimate the level of comfort you operate at. Nobody can. I think you get so…comfortable, that deep down, you will accept any truth they tell you that lets you keep existing the way you’re accustomed to. Whether you make a single fucking battery or not. Whether you even know it.”
I tried to speak, thinking of nothing. She took another step closer, bringing her face just a few inches away from mine.
“Before you do something stupid, let me tell you now,” she said, quietly. “He’s listening.”
But who is listening? What do they want with Brandon? And what kind of crimes will they commit in order to achieve their aims?
Interspersed with Brandon’s disorienting story are the tales of Bo, an eight year-old grieving tremendous loss, and Blue, an older man attempting to reconnect with his family. Connecting their stories is a fictional television show called Raider, a gritty 80s cop drama beloved by many Asian Americans for finally giving them a face and voice on primetime TV, even if only in supporting roles. Slow progress is, after all, better than none whatsoever. Some decades on, the lead actor is being investigated for violent personal conduct, as Christmas approaches and our main characters contemplate what they want out of the rest of their lives and what they’re willing to do to get it.
This novel is an introspective look at the significance of representative fiction in the lives of people yearning for but also fearful of assimilation. Jinwoo Chong takes on not only diaspora issues but also, and perhaps more insightfully, the exploitative ways of tech startups, clearly modeling Flux after a patently absurd version of Theranos and its own con artist founders. The time travel twists will be familiar to any sci-fi buff and the solutions to the mysteries not entirely shocking, but this speculative fiction debut will hopefully serve as a gateway for readers of literary fiction to start exploring even more thought-provoking genre reading.