Helplessly American

Eugene Lim and Donald Breckenridge

Cyborgs, comic book superheroes, protesters in the streets, disenfranchised artists, first-generation immigrants struggling to assimilate—all these outsiders, outcasts, and oddballs have more in common with each other than one might think, as Eugene Lim’s novel Dear Cyborgs beautifully illustrates. Blending Hollywood chase scenes with sharp cultural critiques, hard-boiled detective pulps with subversive philosophy, Dear Cyborgs is a playful and profound meditation on resisting oppression and alienation. Donald Breckenridge is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail and author of And Then, a novel about desolation, regret, and a “father’s long decline into humiliation and death.” Here the two longtime friends talk about the foreign filmmakers and authors who have inspired them to embrace their own “outsider-ness” as “helplessly American” artists and citizens.

Eugene Lim: When did you first see Jean Rouch’s Gare du Nord and why did it leave such a strong impression that you used it to open your novel?

Donald Breckenridge: I first saw the film when I rented the DVD Paris vu par (6 in Paris) on Netflix in the spring of ’06. I was unfamiliar with Rouch’s work, unaware of how influential he was on the New Wave, and I was completely floored by how compact and exquisitely bleak it is . . . that film is an understated masterpiece. This was a few years before I started writing And Then but it was that same spring when I encountered the ghost on the stairs. In retrospect it was a very strange time yet my receptors were all wide open. This was when I was living at 10 Spencer Court off the G-train. You remember that dump? You came over one afternoon in the early summer with a six pack, it was right at the end of a brutal week-long heat wave, we drank beer and then I dragged you over to that Mexican place on Myrtle Ave, then as we were leaving the skies opened and it started pouring and we waited most of it out under an awning as it finally cooled off.

In the opening of Dear Cyborgs there is a terrific passage at Vu’s house, which is a lot less strict than the one where you grew up, where you describe how after a sleepover he would wake up in the morning and instead of marching off to the bathroom or the kitchen right away as almost everyone does, instead he would just lay in bed leisurely reading a comic book—and it is a great revelation—the point you make there is that we are more animal than routine. I am wondering what comics were on Vu’s bed at the time? And also, what comics or graphic novels are on your nightstand right now?

EL: In the mid-1980s, when I was in junior high, after a relatively solid but typical comic book education built around Chris Claremont’s run of the X-Men, my savvier friends found and led me to weirder waters, to publishers like First Comics and Eclipse Comics. So when I think of Vu’s room, the comics that he would have then, in addition to typical superbuffs-in-long-underwear types, are politically incorrect excitements like: Badger, a Vietnam vet whose multiple-personality disorder manifests alternately as a martial arts vigilante, a nine-year old girl, and a dog; Boris the Bear, whose tagline I remember being “a hairball coughed from the throat of hell,” was a cute ursine mercenary who had a violent bloodlust for teenage mutant ninja turtles; and American Flagg!, the images of which I remember but almost none of its plot (the fantastic summary of which is entertainingly incomprehensible in its Wikipedia entry) . . . These days unfortunately I’m not up to date with the ninth art, but ones I have loved are: Gary Panter‘s sketchbooks, Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical Alec comics; Charles Burns’s Black Hole; Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville; Brandon Graham’s King City; and the strange worlds of both Mœbius and Yuichi Yokoyama.

What I remember of that evening at your place, was coming across, on the walk to that Mexican restaurant, the pristine body of a seemingly brand-new car “parked” on the street whose front had been savagely crushed. I remember specifically you noting it and relating it to writing, saying something like, “There’s a chapter, right there,” and I think of the early scenes in And Then in a character’s VW (is it a bug? a vanagon?) when they’re leaving the parking lot of a supermarket to drive to the beach. You have such a great sense of detail—not a show-offy researched vibe but a real, human mastery of the sensorium as it works in memory. Do you have to work to artificially construct such a scene, or does it come about organically? Meaning, as opposed to conscious construction, do you rather depend on something like entrancing yourself or a kind of living in the past? Or, to make the question concrete: how did this scene come about?

DB: I’d forgotten about the car we saw on our walk until you mentioned it. Wasn’t it a Lexus? And yes, absolutely the latest model, all shiny chrome and new glossy paint until wham . . .

In evoking that scene in the beetle, although I try to apply it everywhere, is to only reveal the essential when absolutely necessary; you’re aware of the contents of the glove compartment because Suzanne is told to fetch the rolling papers. That is a blue ’74 beetle, which was my first car and it was given to me when I turned 16, mainly so I could ferry my younger brother and sister around after school. It was bought used for 400 dollars. I still remember how much it cost because that was a lot of money for us and I was constantly reminded of that. This was in ’84 and I did manage to have some fun in that car—the cassette player didn’t eat too many tapes. Bugs of that era were incredibly utilitarian: stick shift, lumpy clutch, soft brake, a nearly claustrophobic interior, no ac, the heat rarely worked, rickety turtle-like acceleration. I was always running out of gas and the engine leaked nearly a quart of oil every week. Sitting in the driver’s seat you’re positioned right up on the windscreen—it is nothing like driving an American car and I guess that was its charm—so my memories of tooling around Virginia Beach in it are quite vivid. I simply placed John and Suzanne in my first and only car and then had John drive from the neighborhood where I lived when our family was together to my favorite part of the beach which was very close to where my mother briefly moved us after my parents split up. So that drive to the beach took me back to a specific place in my early teens right after my parents split up, just after my father moved to Northern Virginia. Their drive coaxed out a very real sense of desolation and being there once more decades later lent me the courage to write out then expand upon elements of my relationship with my father who was a very close friend, and whose deliberate death is so important to this book.

What was it like being a 1st generation Korean American growing up in the late ’70s and ’80s in the rural US? In Dear Cyborgs you describe yourself as being one of two, the other one being Vu, Asian boys in your grade, and with the exception of another young girl who didn’t even attend the same school, you were the only three Asian kids in the entire county . . . and I want to explore this because I want readers to understand how the alienation and racism—both explicit and implicit—that you experienced growing up has informed your writing.

Nowadays, and in a place like NYC for example, a negotiation of cultural identity and the assimilation experience is of course more visible and common— even, as it can and should be, a point of pride.

EL: Let’s say the narrator isn’t me exactly but allow there might be more than a touch of biographical similarity. Given that, I’ll say it’s not an easy question to answer in a short space but here’s a thing or two about it. My parents came to the U.S. from South Korea in the fall of 1973. I was born here the following spring. Conceived there, popped out here. They were physicians (now retired) and part of the medical brain drain and wave of immigrants from Asia after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Prior to that legislation, the immigration policies of this country were incredible racist and exclusionary—as they continue to be. However in 1965, unintentionally (unintentional because the lawmakers thought it would have minimal impact and in fact thought of it more as a kind of PR move) this law began a dramatic demographic shift for this country. I’ve gathered my parents had very little clue, in general, about where they were going, but there was this rare opportunity to leave and go to a place with significant material advantages. It was incredibly difficult for them, and they went at first wherever a colleague or a friend or a job pointed. I think initially New York City, Los Angeles, or Nowheresville were of roughly equal meaning to them, so we hopped about a lot in the beginning. I was born in North Carolina and lived in Virginia, Mississippi, before finally landing in a small town in southern Ohio called Chillicothe. The three biggest employers in that town were the paper mill, the jail, and the V.A. hospital. My parents worked for the latter. At the time in the entirety of Ross County, where Chillicothe is the county seat, there were only two other Korean families. And none of those families had children my age. I was one of maybe three Asian kids in the school and the only Korean American. I had a close friend whose family came from Vietnam and another friend whose family came from Taiwan. That was it. At the time, the racism and alienation were partly mitigated by the fact we were too few in number to be a threat so were more invisible or disregarded than actively maligned. Later and very slowly, in a process that continues very much into the present, I’ve realized what growing up and living amidst a homogeneous, differing culture has meant to me. In some painful ways, I think it’s helped me as a writer because I’ve always felt separated and therefore became rather carefully observant. In other ways it’s been detrimental as I feel, to use the hip if problematic lingo of the academy, some of my sensibilities have been colonized; that is, I do feel inseparable from, but not entirely of, two different cultures. Nowadays, and in a place like NYC for example, a negotiation of cultural identity and the assimilation experience is of course more visible and common— even, as it can and should be, a point of pride. However, for those of us like myself and my sister who grew up in relative isolation, our negotiations certainly didn’t feel like a common or a community experience.

Let’s talk about literature in translation. You have a singularly broad and deep knowledge of modern literature in translation. It was you who first introduced me to Alfred Döblin, Juan Carlos Onetti, and of course the incomparable Emmanuel Bove. You never formally studied literature, right? Do I have it right that you never went to college? Most PhDs I know are rather poorly read in comparison. How did this intense, autodidactic course of study come about?

DB: Of the three authors you just listed—and I’m thrilled that I was the person who introduced you to them—both Onetti and Bove never finished secondary school. Bove’s stepmother’s family was tasked with funding his education and then they went bankrupt just at the onset of WW1. I don’t know why Onetti dropped out yet he was already writing for newspapers and trying his hand at fiction in his late teens. When Bove was university age he was working odd jobs, living in garrets, and attempting to write while waiting for his draft number to be called. Döblin earned a PhD in internal medicine then ran private clinics in Berlin while gradually starting his writing career which would soon get sidelined by WW1. Döblin actually enlisted so he wouldn’t get drafted en masse and tossed into the trenches. Instead he was a doctor during the war and afterwards he became a pacifist. And no I never attended college—just one feeble semester at community college in order to get my GPA up enough to maybe get into college but that effort quickly fizzled-out. To be honest with you it was nothing short of miraculous that I even graduated high school. I had a horrible time in school from the very start and was actually held back in the 5th grade. If looking out the window and daydreaming all afternoon or flirting with the willing doe-eyed girls across the classroom had been a part of the curriculum then I probably would have passed a few more classes. Although I have always been a carnivorous reader—in junior high I made up my mind that someday I was going to be a writer—then soon after I gravitated to reading world literature almost exclusively. And today, with the exception of the contemporary American literature that I find myself reading for The Brooklyn Rail, my personal reading habits haven’t changed since my teens. I don’t consider myself to be bloody minded, and I’ve had too much fun to ever regret not getting a formal education, nor do I have an aversion to academia as my wife, Johannah Rodgers, is, in addition to being a very talented author, a full tenured English professor. This is just how it has worked out for me.

In addition to Onetti, Bove and Döblin what other foreign authors have influenced your writing?

EL: For me, the pantheon of recent foreign masters—no great revelations here—are: Roberto Bolaño, W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser. These are writers who have it all: a power that may destroy them, the most accurate sensitivity, unmatched style. But there’s another group of writers whom, on the one hand, I like a little less, but on the other hand, have left a greater mark on my own writing because their work revealed to me lessons of technique or philosophy that opened up a new direction. I’m thinking of the prolific César Aira who sometimes is rather too propulsive and prolific, but whose abandonment of fictive continuity (similar to, but more radical and complete than, Buñuel’s casting of two actresses in the same role) seems to me a gambit that gives the novel new life, allows it to admit its trickery while retaining its truth. And similarly, if in an opposite way, the noir-ish adventures of Jean Eschenoz, where plot and event is fast and furious but somehow without suspense or redemption, has the surprising result of its far fetched mosaic of circumstance becoming somehow, uncannily, more real.

What strikes me, if I can make a rude assumption, about both of us is how helplessly American we both are—byproducts of race and class mechanisms available nowhere else. Helplessly American because by going against the grain we’ve been therefore defined by it. And while our search for stylists and formalists elsewhere is a recognition of an outsider-ness and a defiant rejection, it’s also, I think, a quest for appropriate tools to speak our respective native experiences. Maybe that’s too grandly said, but, well, it’s a theory.

Dear Cyborgs
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Eugene Lim is the author of Fog & Car and The Strangers. His writing has appeared in Fence, the Denver Quarterly, Little Star, Dazed, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. He is the founder and managing editor of Ellipsis Press and works as a librarian in a high school. He lives in Queens, New York.

Donald Breckenridge lives in Brooklyn with his spouse, Johannah Rodgers. He is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, Co-Founder and Co-Editor of InTranslation, and the Managing Editor of Red Dust Books. He has written four novels, edited two fiction anthologies, and introduced the NYRB Classics edition of Henri Duchemin and His Shadows by Emmanuel Bove.