Hope may be the thing with feathers, but according to Søren Kierkegaard, it can fly away from what is necessary, leading its pursuer into despair. This deceit of myriad possibilities is a living death, the obsessed having lost the semblance of self apart from the thing desired: an unrequited love, a career, or better yet—an obsession with a Korean pop group. What finer example inspires totalizing fandom than K-pop icons, with their combination of harmony, swagger, and synchrony? Who else could inspire at once religion-adjacent transcendence and existential dread?
In her novel Y/N, Esther Yi explores the existentialism of K-pop obsession through her unnamed narrator: a young Korean-American woman in Berlin who works as a copywriter for an Australian expat’s business in artichoke hearts. Her acquaintances are the educated types, “teetering between the professionalism neatly paved ahead of them and the few, fruitless ways in which they might deny the force of the former.” They regard the narrator with measured curiosity; her flatmate, Vavra, calls her a superficial scholar while her boyfriend, Masterson, reminds her that she “bullies the feeling out of everything.” Both point out in the narrator what the reader has already discovered: a woman painfully introspective, satisfied to “be one thing as intensely as possible” while coddling a stasis in which her “spiritual sphincter . . . is clenched to keep out the cheap and stupid.”
But that stasis collapses when Vavra invites her to a Korean boy band concert. Named after celestial bodies and cultivated by a producer called the Music Professor, the performers captivate the narrator but none more so than Moon—the alpha star of the group. She is instantly smitten but this is no mere crush—her desire for Moon transcends romance, it reorients her life and interrogates her existence. Language fails her as she attempts to relate the ineffable, “spiritual companionship” with Moon that makes her laugh as if her “navel is the twisted end of a sausage coming undone.” Masterson dismisses her obsession as a substitute for religion, but it is too late—even his real presence is obscured by her fantasies of Moon.
How does one reckon with the intensity of a love for someone so remote? The narrator resorts to writing a short story, its protagonist named “Y/N,” as in, Your Name, to project the universal reader onto her fantasy of Moon. She sees a therapist who says tells her, “Sorry, but you’re not in love. You’re a fan. Boring, lethargic, overfed.” But rather that dissuading her from Moon, the therapist nudges her toward her own Kierkegaardian leap: rather than drowse in fantasy, she must prove out the integrity of her love—and her self—if purity of heart is to will one thing. The narrator is left with no other rational choice: to hell with artichoke hearts, she must travel to South Korea to meet her destiny.
The first chapter of Y/N was published in The Paris Review as a short story entitled “Moon” and one wonders whether the form better suits the story. What is implied in the short becomes didactic in the novel, with characters who are like ghosts out of a Miyazaki film—Moon-cultists whose absurdity augurs the narrator’s destiny. Backstory is irrelevant while the narrator’s obsession is articulated in esoteric, fragmented language. Upon hearing a child cry, she “envied his indefatigable sensitivity, how he took no account of increasing familiarity of whatever force was working upon him.” The narrator meets O, a woman who vicariously pursues Moon through her, who asks, “For the rest of the way, will you press your hand against your heart to feel it burn in anticipation?” Piqued by the scars on O’s skin, the narrator states “Your pain has three dimensions.” It is as if the narrator and her fellow obsessives are together distanced from everyday parlance.
And yet, this narrative distance employs the irony that Kierkegaard deems vital to subjectivity among infinite possibilities, the tongue of critical doubt. It also betrays something about the world of the novel and the systemic forces beyond the characters’ control. Though Yi’s prose can feel stilted, especially as it bounces back and forth to “conventional” speech (and behavior), the language befits the narrator, psychically removed from her surroundings. Against the everyday, mundane distractions, her voice speaks from an inner despair, a hunger for transcendence that resonates.
Language also conveys dislocation for the mixed-culture narrator. She is forged in the liminal spaces between German, Korean, and English—and perhaps, while fluent in each, she does not belong to any one group. It is as if she is always subconsciously searching for the right words and metaphors. The irony of learning a foreign language is that when stammering for the right word, one can sometimes stumble onto the best one. Perhaps this estrangement hints at the argot of our common humanity: our clumsy dialect in expressing the ineffable. But whether that commonality—and the individual self—is found in the aesthetic or the ethical ideal is both the narrator’s dilemma and ours. Rather than dare painful disillusionment, we may shelter in the realm of possibilities where we are never wrong, safe from corrupting our favorite version of ourselves. After all, as the Music Professor says, “It’s so much better in our heads.”
About the Reviewer
Michael Hahn is an essayist and a writer of short fiction and literary criticism. His works have been featured in Water~Stone Review, phoebe, Tiferet Journal, and The Los Angeles Review Online and can be found at readhahn.com. Michael is a graduate of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Pacific University.