Former HUFPI President Criticizes ‘Lies’ in Crimson Article Investigating Alleged Financial Mismanagement
Harvard Spent $580,000 on Federal Lobbying During Bacow’s Final Full Year in Office
Five Articles by Harvard Medical School Researchers Retracted for Data Discrepancies
Harvard Faculty Approve Proposals to Amend Simultaneous Enrollment, Language Requirement
Cambridge Councilors Propose Funding for Local Police Alternative
Last summer, the first chapter of Esther Yi’s debut novel “Y/N” was published in The Paris Review under the title “Moon,” the name of the member of a Korean pop supergroup who becomes the object of the unnamed narrator’s obsession. At the chapter’s white-hot center is an extended, ekphrastic episode in which the narrator neurotically describes Moon’s movements and physical attributes at a concert. Though this scene takes up some eight pages, the pacing never lags thanks to the freshness of the language, which borders on the sublime — in one riotously transgressive moment, the narrator imagines Moon’s throat as “a fundamental muscle that ran down the body all the way to the groin, where, I imagined, it boldly flipped out as the penis.”
As a novel, however, “Y/N” finds itself incompatible with the stark instantaneity of Yi’s prose. Following the concert by the supergroup (whom the narrator calls “the pack of boys”), the narrator watches Moon’s live streams, leaves her boyfriend, writes a fanfiction story featuring Moon, and attends a party hosted by the fandom at a Berlin café. Later she moves to Seoul, where she visits the boys’ pyramidal residential complex and ends up in a haven outside the city called the Sanctuary, where Moon is living alongside three patients with dementia.
Stretched between so many continents and interiors, the narrator’s frenetic desire for Moon, which was the first chapter’s lifeblood, now wears thin; its potency is foiled by logistics. The narrator’s search for meaning leads her toward irrelevant details and dead-end plot lines; As a result, the book often feels like a big, cantilevered Jenga tower — constructed in earnest but teetering, and ready at any moment to collapse.
The novel’s title stands for “your name” a reference to the trope in modern fanfiction where the narrator’s name is replaced by those two letters, in an invitation to the reader to supplant their own identity as a character in the story. This device, however symbolic of the narrator’s habit of projection, seems only to be directly employed within the embedded story that she writes. The rest of “Y/N” fails to achieve that standard of devotion and immersiveness, which is key to all good fanfiction.
This failure may be due to Yi’s refusal to lean into clichés, which sabotages the novel when taken to the extreme. Her narrator is, frankly, a snob, completely disinterested in the universal or the commonly felt. Narratorial snobbishness is a common trait in much contemporary fiction, but Yi’s narrator considers even the simple relaying of a thought or emotion to be beneath her, such that every instance of narrative elaboration or conversation carries the pedantic, convoluted speech of a proselytizer or conspiracy theorist.
What problematizes the novel’s narrative voice is not how it presents the narrator’s over-discerning taste (which is actually one of her more redeeming qualities), but how it characterizes the text overall. “Y/N” is an attempt to innovate within the fanfiction genre, which can sometimes encourage adherence to one formula. Yi’s cause is a noble one, but its poor execution causes it to confound where it seeks to convince.
The novel’s dialogue is perhaps the most egregious example of Yi’s innovative shortcomings. In Chapter Six, the narrator meets a woman named O, whose identity she later assumes in order to gain entrance to Polygon Plaza — the hulking, pyramid-shaped complex where the pack of boys live and record music, under the guidance of a mysterious woman called the Music Professor. (It’s all very Willy Wonka.) Before all this, in O’s apartment, O leans over to sniff the narrator. She gags, then says, “You smell like a lovely tree, but you look like an emergency room patient who will never be the same.” The dialogue here is wholly misguided, less a mimesis of human speech than a vague, unintelligible gesture toward the transcendent.
The narrator’s character, too, is confounding — she often makes choices incongruous to her character that restrict her believability as a person. The novel’s first chapters provide a vehement defense of her volatile, disordered interiority — why, then, does she so readily agree to be therapized later in the novel? These contradictions twist the story into a disorienting spiral, plumbing deeper and deeper into its own unsure arguments. The reader is not invited below the surface.
“Y/N” is at its best when it doesn’t try to do too much, drawing on preestablished practices of storytelling instead of gesticulating toward something new. At times, the novel employs austerity in moments of description, reminiscent of Katie Kitamura’s “Intimacies.” Another section, at the end of Chapter Seven, evokes the meta-structures of framing that frequently figure in the work of Lydia Davis. But when “Y/N” veers away from contemporary convention in a bold but bungled attempt at generic trailblazing, it seems to get lost.
—Staff writer Chase D. Melton can be reached at email@example.com.
Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.