In the Back to the Future movie trilogy, Marty McFly travels through time with the help of a Y-shaped gizmo called the flux capacitor. Its function receives only a cursory explanation, but it doesn’t really matter how it works; the movie is less about the mechanics of time travel than the relationship between the past and the present, and the effect we can have on shaping our own destiny. In a conscious echo of the movies, Jinwoo Chong’s ambitious debut novel, “Flux,” also uses a time-traveling premise as a kind of MacGuffin — here, in the service of the author’s interests in memory, nostalgia and the legacy of trauma.
In the first part of the novel, Chong introduces us to three protagonists from different time periods. When we meet Brandon, in the present day, he’s working at a trendy magazine and sleeping with his boss. Twenty-five pages later, he’s lost his job and fallen down an elevator shaft. Blue, some 20 years in the future, is prepping for a TV interview during which he’ll reveal what really happened (“fraud, extortion, later murder”) at a supernova tech company he once worked at. Meanwhile, in the past, a boy named Bo is dealing with the death of his mother, a tragedy for which he blames himself.
There are enough clues to figure out pretty quickly how these stories link up beyond their depictions of physical and emotional trauma. The narrative pleasures of “Flux” lie less in the big reveals than in watching Chong knit together genre tropes from sci-fi movies, speculative fiction and thrillers to tell a story about how what we remember can imprison us — and why freedom may lie within.
There’s a lot going on. With varying degrees of success, Chong synthesizes a large, diverse set of themes and plot elements, including time travel, grief, Asian American representation and queer romance. One intriguing quirk of the narrative is how much of it is told in the second person, with Brandon, who has Korean heritage on his mother’s side, directly addressing his childhood idol, the hard-boiled hero of a gritty ’80s cop show he used to watch with his (White) father. “Raider” was, we discover, way ahead of its time in its depiction of Asian lives — “We said more than unsubtitled Cantonese, we played more than kung fu masters or dragon assassins” — even if today some of it may be indefensible. A long-running plot line that saw Raider take custody of a young child holds particular significance for Brandon, for reasons we’ll discover: “You, trenchcoated, half shadowed, holding that little Asian boy in your arms, staring into the dark rain falling all around you and straight into my soul.”
The novel’s satirical streak is perhaps its strongest suit. Flux, the company Brandon ends up working for after his rabbit-hole trip down the elevator shaft, is clearly modeled on Theranos, while its founder, Io Emsworth — a wide-eyed Stanford dropout chasing foolish fire with venture capital — is a dead ringer for Elizabeth Holmes. Emsworth even recruits a former defense secretary and two ex-NSAs to her board, while “Best Buy nearly bankrupted itself flushing them with a cash order of 800 million, betting billions on a robust and ambitious production timeline.” Chong is at his best in these sharp little jabs aimed at the seed-capital class, like this description of the company HQ: “Place was a dump when we got in. You know that kind of dirty cement look everybody’s horny for these days? It was all over. Gave me hives. I saw this carpet in a music video.”
Brandon’s cushy new tech job is ultimately too good to be true. Quickly, his life becomes luxurious but spacey; everything starts to feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Glitchy repetitions in the narrative signal that all probably isn’t well, and by the time he’s taken out for his birthday to a gay club called Dream, most readers will be on high alert for the signs that Brandon’s been comprehensively red-pilled.
At times, so many things seem to be happening in “Flux” that it’s hard to know where to look. (My notes, rereading the book, include “is ferrochromium real?” and “heed the significance of cereal.”) Perhaps as a result, it feels a little undercooked. Brandon’s romantic relationships, both with his boss and with Min, the woman who witnesses his elevator tumble, serve the plot more than they illuminate the characters. The trippy multiversal leaps in time and space in the book’s third act are perhaps more disorienting than was intended. And plot points promised upfront (murder!) are disappointingly buried in Scooby-Doo-ish dialogue near the end.
Nevertheless, the book is an imaginative exploration of how cultural memory and grief interact. Chong makes a strong case for hope that the way out of our infinite loops resides within. For Brandon, as for Marty McFly, the keys to the future are to be discovered in the past.
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.
By Jinwoo Chong
Melville House. 352 pp. $28.99
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