Down the Rabbit Hole: Eugene Lim’s Search History
For an artificial intelligence program to write “even a below-average novel,” a character in Eugene Lim’s new novel, Search History, argues to his friends, would require “a design where many problems are being worked on simultaneously.” This would “allow analogous or parallel situations and solutions to be identified between extremely disparate issues.” Search History is far above average, but its project, too, is to appose disparate situations, ideas, and genres. The novel—which is metafictional and described within its own pages as “not really a novel but a cracked-mirror version of one”—is broken into distinct sections, some of which continue from previous ones to form loose storylines and some of which stand alone. The event that broadly connects these sections is the suicide of Frank Exit, and his friends’ grieving in its wake.
In the main storyline—a series of connected sections labeled “Shaggy Dog”—a friend chases after a dog that he thinks is the reincarnation of Frank, but which is actually a robot created by an AI scientist named Doctor Y who is working on a project to commune with the dead. The latest version of her project? The very book we’re reading. (The cyberdog technology is merely a “profitable side path.”) The friend’s adventurous search for the dog, assisted by Donna, the preteen daughter of Doctor Y, resembles something out of an Austin Powers movie—during a car chase, for instance, their tires are shot out by the dog itself, who has a gun and is leaning out of the car they’re pursuing; the narrator does “some fancy swerving” to no avail. The two characters rarely talk about the action sequences they are living out, preferring instead to discuss the loss of their parents, Frank’s friendship and death, and what even is “identity,” anyway? “You could ask yourself what we’re really chasing,” Donna says, thoughtfully and hilariously, during that same car chase—“the ‘solution’ to the code of your racially marked body?”
In other sections, friends mourn Frank while also discussing visual art and poetry, Asian American identity, power if not explicitly politics, and the plausibility of Doctor Y’s aforementioned fiction-generating AI. Despite the grief that permeates the book, Lim’s writing is playful—not light, exactly, but suave, full of plays on words and sly, satirical jabs, often about the literary world and the “so-called literature” that sells well and wins prizes. About Doctor Y’s AI technology, one character explains that “She thinks she just has to hit the right combination of fifty-cent vocabulary, purposeful obfuscation, euro-fetishizing wistfulness, and saccharine plot—and she may be able to secure a Man Booker.”
While the novel does touch on familial relationships, especially the loss of parents, friendship is the relationship that connects and concerns all the characters. It is also, perhaps even more than grief, what Lim seems most interested in capturing on the page. “[T]he sweet, tenuous link between people that we name so easily as friendship can barely be held in the mind,” Doctor Y says in her opening monologue. She continues:
I like to go to lunch one-on-one with a friend. That’s what this is all about, what we’re leading up to. That kind of lunch. That kind of lunch is the best… [W]e looked across battered and crumbled tables at each other, trying to name the things we could name—particularly the pretty nimbused phantoms we were in the middle of losing, but also the movie stars in something we saw last week as well as the gossip about the wrong turns of others.
The friends’ conversations are inconclusive and full of tangents; increasingly they talk past each other, about different topics. Sometimes the redundancy between these scenes and the “Shaggy Dog” ones is a little boring, as when one character gives a perfunctory defense of psychedelics that pales in comparison to the previous section’s lovely description of tripping and meditating. But it’s a pleasure to draw out the parallels this book sets up: Friendship (or, by another name, conversation), grieving, art-making (referred to as “a commitment… a relationship with the world”), and understanding one’s identity—all processes without end, but ones that, without vigilance, may fade in importance over time, until they are eventually forgotten.
Lim has written before about experimental fiction and the need to slough off such conventions of narrative as plot. In a 2016 talk he gave, later published by The Brooklyn Rail, he wrote, after quoting Robert Creeley, “the story has no time, and its old purpose… is being replaced by something else, no matter how random and broken, that has ‘the fact of reality and the pressure.’”
Search History certainly defies plot; even the sections that appear to fall into a recognizable action genre have no arc or traditional story structure—they’re literally labeled “Shaggy Dog.” What’s more, by my reading the novel seems to defy linear time. Like a temporal Mobius strip, some sections appear to rely on technology that, based on the timeline of other sections, hasn’t yet been invented—definitely one way to “break” a story.
It feels too obvious and underbaked to claim that the “point” of this broken form is, at least partly, to demonstrate the nonsensical and nonlinear nature of grief—but the fact is that Search History is a beautiful portrait of loss, and it is made all the more so, perhaps surprisingly, by its metafictional cleverness. Early on, Frank’s friend Muriel claims that for Doctor Y’s AI to write a novel, it would need a “spark” or “binding agent” of reality; fittingly, Lim includes two autobiographical interludes, titled “Dead Friend” and “Mother,” both of which are two of the most moving parts of the book.
Search History is not only about personal loss but also large-scale tragedy, which may or may not affect us on an individual level, and how we respond to both. The opening pages take us through different scenes of global inequality, injustice, and cruelty: racism at a New York art exhibit; labor conditions in a Chinese factory; ocean detritus as a symbol of climate change. There’s historical death—Japanese internment camps come up in both storylines, which characters admit they can rarely think about—as well as the dismal current state of affairs. As Frank puts it, in the beautiful soliloquy he gives in the moments before his suicide: “How many disastrously stupid people there are!? And how powerful the smart and evil?!”
In the face of such cruelty and despair, most of the characters—like most people—are groping along, motivated by love for their friends and family, saddened by loss but trying not to let it overtake them. They mourn, they make art, they create technology to talk to the dead, they do drugs, they go to clown school, they joke around over sushi, they pose existential questions about their identity and the future. This is a book of conversation, but it’s not dialectical: no one is really helping their interlocutors come to any universal conclusions. If someone does articulate some insight or epiphany—about life, or love, or selfhood—it is most often deflated by another. “It’s a beautiful idea,” someone at lunch says after one of their friends tells a long story about the nature of love. “Not sure I agree, but it’s beautiful, if maybe a bit simple.” And then the conversation shifts to another topic, down another rabbit hole, and everyone moves on.