It’s Not Cancel Culture, It’s Scam Culture: Jinwoo Chong’s Flux

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“Can we separate the art from the artist?”

If you’re like me, you’ve been in more than a few versions of this particular conversation. You could even, at this point in the post-MeToo era, write a MadLib of this conversation. It starts out in the abstract. Within the first thirty words, the term “canceled” will be invoked. Then it will be interrogated. Now you’re having a conversation about “whether cancellation even exists.” Someone has unironically referred to “Zoomers.” We’re now talking about Michael Jackson (or Kevin Spacey, or Louis CK, or, or, or). Out comes the expression “it’s not apples to apples.” Positions entrench. It usually doesn’t end well.

About 100 pages into his novel Flux, Jinwoo Chong stages a version of that conversation. It’s a version we recognize, only his is ridden with irony. That’s because his protagonist Brandon, who’s rehearsing these tired arguments while on a date—“the idea that we should just dissociate from something that big, like a show, with so many moving parts and other actors and writers and producers…”—isn’t being entirely forthcoming about why he’s defending this particular work of art, this particular problematic artist.

He’s defending a fictional ’80s TV series called Raider, a cop show starring Antonin Haubert. (“The Chinatown detective one?” Brandon’s date Min asks.) Haubert had been the first Asian American lead in the genre, embodying a gritty, hardened detective facing criminal masterminds. (“I’ve read a lot of good stuff… Asian representation, and all that,” Min comments.) Raider was canceled—literally, by the network—before it got the chance to tie up the loose ends of its high-stakes season two cliffhanger, and Haubert’s character, the show’s hero Thomas Raider, never has his big moment of redemption. The actor, on the other hand, moves on to splashy, award-winning projects, leaving Raider to become a footnote in a future Wikipedia entry. It’s an early role, one he’s barely remembered for anymore — a Johnny Depp to the real-life ’80s series 21 Jump Street, perhaps.

Now, at the start of the novel, which appears to be set in the 2020s, women are coming forward to accuse Haubert of abuse. Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that, unlike Johnny Depp, allegations of misconduct for this man of color lead to a swift and unequivocal public condemnation. Haubert has his Oscars rescinded. His son releases a statement on social media disavowing him.

But Brandon, our narrator, is what we call a stan. For reasons the novel will dole out in due time, Brandon is not letting go. It was my first clue that this was a MeToo book with something new to say: despite Brandon’s vociferous defense of his beloved TV show, I still liked him. I felt a sort of pathos for Haubert, privately, inside this novel, and yet was also disgusted by my own apologism. I began to wonder if the closest analog for Haubert were not in fact Johnny Depp but Bill Cosby. The capital-P Progress his show represented somehow made it harder for fans to see his harm, at least at first. Was I feeling for Haubert as so many have felt for their symbolic and politically meaningful fallen stars?

After actress Constance Wu came forward this fall alleging sexual harassment by an unnamed Asian American producer of the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Wu gave an interview on Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Red Table Talk on Facebook. “The thing that was most painful,” she said, “was he was so derogatory and harassing towards me, but because this show was sort of a beacon of representation for Asian Americans, and I sort of became a symbol of representation, I didn’t want to sully the one show with sexual harassment claims against the one Asian American man who is doing all this better work for the community.” The one show. The only one. Part of Chong’s method may be to show us how structural tokenism makes for especially fragile idols. It hurts differently. It might be a whole different category of betrayal. Of course now I’m turning fans, and not survivors, into the victims.

Brandon doesn’t see himself as a victim—definitely not. But he’s also no hero. He would rather not choose, would rather not face reality: not with Raider, and not with much of anything in Brandon’s life, which seems to be unfolding before his eyes like a droll rerun. His personal life consists of a standing sleepover date with his boss Gil. “When I liked Gil too much,” Brandon narrates to an imagined Raider, “I thought about your jacket, the kind of no-shit, icy guy I’d be if I could wear something like that every day.” His professional life is a joke he seems as amused about as I was: “You know those little pieces of cardstock that fall out of the magazine when you’re flipping through them at the airport?…That was me.” Life happens to Brandon: When Gil fires him and the rest of his marketing department, Brandon takes his severance check to the mall and buys himself not the coveted Raider jacket, but a leather fanny pack. (“Belt bag,” the shop clerk clarifies.)

Then, as if out of thin air, a new job materializes at Flux. Flux is a multibillion-dollar startup that might be an energy company or might be something else entirely. Its CEO, Io Emsworth, is a kind of sexy punk-nerd version of Elizabeth Holmes, a chance for Chong to masterfully satirize, and maybe complicate, another recognizable 2020s archetype: the charismatic scammer.

Because despite the fact that Flux’s offices, a kind of army base encased in bulletproof glass, cost a fortune and were designed by the Porsche people, somehow, Brandon notices, nobody is ever around and nothing ever seems to be happening. Can he listen to his gut and bail? Or will he continue to take the bribe and go through the motions, hopping in the company car each morning, breakfasting on company-sponsored cinnamon cereal at the same time each day, putting up with his boss calling him “big boy”? What would Raider do?

Flux is not just a story of a young man in, well, flux. It’s also a daringly constructed thriller, a mystery that propels you through it with burning questions, magnetic characters, and gasp-worthy twists. Perhaps because the novel opens with a quote from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, it isn’t a spoiler to say that it’s a time travel book. Time travel stories often rely on a certain kind of narrative déjà vu: You’re stuck in a loop, returning to the same moment again and again, hoping to be able to change the narrative, to do something different this time around. What any time traveler is looking for, in other words, is redemption. Like Raider, the novel uses an episodic structure and a VHS-tape rewind effect to slowly bring into focus its true subject: Brandon’s childhood trauma, and the grief that is deeply lodged inside him.

Because what’s often behind our intellectualizing about separating art from artists is a profoundly personal grief. A character, a story, an idol we once entrusted with our devotion is now tainted, shot through with the horror and disgust of whatever allegation has surfaced. We feel betrayed, even duped, as if some silent deal we’d made with the art has been broken. Pure fandom can feel inviolable like that: unconditional as the love between child and parent. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge how much of our identities live in the architecture of other people’s stories. When those structures start to crumble, we can either evacuate or stand our ground. But rarely does either option feel entirely right.

Haubert’s work on Raider doesn’t even seem to be all that widely beloved; Brandon seems to be among a small cadre of diehards, certainly in his generation. Is that why I liked Brandon—because he exhibits that quirky mix of courage and sentimentality which characterizes pure, devoted fandom? “The dumbest part about the way they’ve been tearing you down lately is that they’re forgetting the fact that Raider defined an entire genre of television,” Brandon narrates. “Three years after Hill Street Blues, two after Cagney & Lacey, this was a show that played in the dark. … You dealt a rawness that couldn’t be glossed, the hard edges of those alleyways, your filthy clothes, that fucking jacket. You know, I’d kill for that leather jacket.”

This “you.” This strategy—to narrate in an intimate second-person, with Brandon directly addressing Raider the character—is the key to understanding Chong’s sensibility, and to understanding his novel’s critical reframing of the “cancel culture” conversation. “I’m pretty sure Antonin Haubert didn’t even think about the show anymore. There was so much else on his resumé. Which shouldn’t hurt your feelings. You still made a killing in syndication.”

With this point of view, Chong literalizes the separation of the art from the artist: Brandon addresses Raider, but not Haubert the actor, the man accused. For Brandon, Haubert’s real-life violent behavior is not related to Raider’s often violent detective work—work that, at the end of each episode, would lead to justice. Raider is totemic for him, frozen in time. The artist, for all intents and purposes, is dead.

But of course he’s not, and his victims are real. And so Brandon becomes, ever so subtly, an unreliable narrator, his authority undermined by this willful oversight, this wishful separation. It’s the seed of the entire novel: the danger, and the delusion, of the cathected cultural figure. Who is Raider to Brandon, exactly? A proxy? A parent? An object of desire? “I remembered the first time I watched all of Raider through and realized there would be no more episodes,” Brandon narrates. “I wouldn’t be able to watch you quite the same way. I’d never wonder about you again. I’d never be surprised. There you were: Raider, for all you are, and there would be no more.”

It’s almost a eulogy. But even if the art may be separable from the artist for Brandon, his own life and identity are clearly inextricable from Raider. “Sometimes I forgot the way I did things just because I saw you do them,” Brandon confides. “I wanted to smoke so badly, like you did, but my dad would’ve killed me.” Chong gives us glimpses of the child inside the man, whose idolatry blurs lines.

The problem with trying to separate art from artist, of course, is that it becomes too easy to lose track of the truth. But sometimes a work of art lives inside of you. Its hero’s perspective becomes yours. These are the ones it is hardest to let go of: not because we “should,” or because “they’re canceled”; but because we have to, in order to grow.

Scholar and New York Times columnist Tressie McMillan Cottom has called ours a scam culture. “Sociologically, scams are about norms and not about legality,” she explains. “A scam culture is one in which scamming has not only lost its stigma but is also valorized.” Flux is a book about what happens when we forget how to tell art and life apart—and about what’s at stake, and who benefits, when we choose the official narrative over the truth. Or do we have a choice? It’s hard to determine the real scam sometimes, hard to know with whom accountability lies. In the introduction to their book She Said, which chronicles the painstakingly rigorous journalism that eventually brought down Harvey Weinstein, Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey explain that their reporting “took place at a time of accusations of ‘fake news,’ as the very notion of a national consensus on truth seemed to be fracturing.” Abuse is like any other scam in that way: It manipulates, misleads, forces its version of reality. It grasps for control over the narrative.

That’s what makes Flux a book for our time. In the flux of the post-MeToo era, whose backlash manifests in bad-faith conflation of censorship and censure, Jinwoo Chong has charted us a way forward that doesn’t throw away the past, but travels back to it with purpose. (I told you it was a time travel book!) With this story, he reframes the question at the heart of social movements like MeToo: not “am I allowed to like this?”, but rather, “what does my loyalty to this work of art prevent me from seeing?”

Or maybe, since we’re dealing with time travel: “What future is my past preventing me from living?”

Emma Staffaroni teaches literature and gender studies in Massachusetts. When she's not writing about contemporary feminist literatures, she works on transgender-inclusive school reform initiatives. Her literary commentary can be found on her blog, Staff Picks. More from this author →