- By Esther Yi
- Astra House
- 224 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- May 10, 2023
A woman in search of herself becomes obsessed with a K-pop idol.
What is identity? As a mixed-race, transracial adoptee born in South Korea, I have long been preoccupied with that question. For years, my identity issues wreaked havoc on my life, as they do with the protagonist of Esther Yi’s surrealist debut novel, Y/N.
An unnamed, disaffected 29-year-old Korean American woman living in Berlin, she is persuaded to go to the concert of a phenomenally popular K-pop band, where she first lays eyes on the singer Moon:
“The pose he held should have been impossible: his trunk was perfectly vertical, but his neck jutted ahead at an angle so wide that his head, held erect, seemed to belong to another torso entirely. It was the neck that disturbed me. Long and smooth, it implied the snug containment of a fundamental muscle that ran down the body all the way to the groin, where, I imagined, it boldly flipped out as the penis.”
Thus begins her obsession with Moon and the unraveling of her life.
Not that her life was very raveled in the first place. She is unrequited in both work and love. Intelligent and interested in books and philosophy, she has nothing to show for it except for a job as a copywriter for a canned-artichoke business and a crippling sense of superiority.
She is in love with a man named Masterson (as in many surrealist novels, names, or the lack thereof, are significant), telling his friends that she’s his adopted sister rather than confess they met online, which she fears reveals her mediocrity. Much as he tries, Masterson cannot love her back, claiming, “[Y]ou bully the feelings right out of everything.” After writing him a pleading letter, she “crossed out ‘asters’ in ‘Dear Masterson’ and scratched in a big ‘o’ overhead…and mailed it to Masterson.”
Her next letter to Masterson is a story about an encounter between a woman and a philosopher named Moon who has the same neck as the K-pop idol. After finding a website of fanfiction featuring celebrities, she begins to publish her Moon stories under the name fleurfloor. At a live meet-up of K-pop fans, she learns about “a type of fanfiction where the protagonist was called Y/N, or ‘your name.’ Whenever Y/N appeared in the text, the reader could plug in their own name, thereby sharing events with the celebrity they had no chance of meeting in real life.”
The narrative begins to fluctuate between the protagonist’s real life and her Y/N fiction, the two stories braiding ever more tightly together. When Moon’s retirement from the band is announced, the narrator buys a one-way ticket to Seoul; in the meantime, as Y/N, she and Moon move from Berlin to Seoul so that Moon, an adoptee, can find his birth mother. (Author Yi seems to nod to transracial, intercountry adoptees as the GOATs of identity-seekers by twice referencing adoption.)
As the narrator flounders through the disassociation of being an expatriate in the country of her ancestors, Y/N encourages Moon to become a performer. When they both recognize that his talent is bigger than their relationship, they break up:
“‘This has to be our last meal together,’ he says. ‘I must leave at midnight to learn to dance for people like you. I must leave at midnight to learn to become special, and you must stay as you are, unknown and unremarkable.’”
The narrator then meets (or manifests into existence) O, a painter who creates art for her own satisfaction and lovingly cares for her difficult mother. Her doppelgänger — or maybe she is O’s doppelgänger — O knows the answers to the narrator’s existential questions and explains the narrator to herself. With O’s ID card, the protagonist gains entrance to the band’s headquarters, and it is no longer possible to tell the difference between her narrative and Y/N’s.
There isn’t much interiority in surrealism other than the alienation and confusion of the main character; in fact, interiority is not a hallmark of Eastern literature. The Western novel, though, demands interiority, which is delivered through sometimes stilted dialogue. Though the settings here are Berlin and Seoul, and the protagonist is the only native English speaker in the novel, the text is solely in English and is imbued with puns and double-entendres. Even the title has a dual meaning, also standing for yes/no, with characters like O and Masterson as the Yes against the protagonist’s self-defeating No.
In the end, after all my searching as a transracial adoptee, I found that identity was saying yes to all of me, including my ambition, testing my cherished sense of superiority and making me vulnerable to failure. By writing fanfiction, our nameless protagonist has said, “Um.” It’s not a yes, but it’s also not a no. Meanwhile, her doppelgänger, who “no longer had patience for ideas in their pure form,” says yes to the messy nuances of life. With a surrealist novel, that might be as close as it gets to a happy ending.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, as well as a book reviewer, essayist, short story writer, and a columnist for the Independent.