Review: The Strangers by Eugene Lim

By Paul Vangelisti

TheStrangers_1As poets may look for languages to think in, some fiction writers search out new contexts to subject to prose. Thus inciting the necessary friction between writing and the world one imagines. One’s own country filled with one’s own miracles.

Eugene Lim possesses the preparation and discipline needed for such travels, not easily distracted by whatever flavor-of-the-month floods the market, or the pages of the official/officious organs upholding that same market.

Above all, Lim’s work is blessedly free of ‘tundra,’ a propensity that H.L. Mencken, already in the 1930s, found overabundant in much American writing. An often obligatory regionalism passing itself off as realism, with the writer constrained “to give a voice” to hitherto unspoken and perhaps unspeakable locales. Also, the work seems uninterested in the moral equivalent of these landscapes, as in the fiction of such different mainstream writers as Raymond Carver and Cormack McCarthy.

In The Strangers one comes upon, instead, an ideal of exploratory fiction. Making one’s own sentences, one might call it, whether in prose or poetry, and always the next territory ready to be forsaken. To wit:

The first movie was nothing but it led to something. I’m not sure if that’s true. Maybe when the something came, it came of itself and was not dependent on nothing before. That seems unlikely.

Or the cameraman talking about his last film:

To give some context and ‘humanize’ it, sleeper sleeps, sleeper wakes, woken rises, and risen breakfasts. Later, diner lunches, worker works, watcher boobtubes, fatigued sups, and lastly, sleeper sleeps. It was hard to figure out how to do it, technically, but eventually we also film: thinker thinks.

Or, toward voyage’s end, on the cruise ship that accommodates and seems endlessly to multiply the novel’s characters and their actions, one of the travelers muses:

I went on deck. Every morning the sun felt like a different place. Sometimes I thought it felt like Barcelona in autumn or Beijing in summer or San Francisco any cold, foggy dawn. Today I thought it felt like Montevideo in springtime, a clear and cool sweetness. I’ve never set foot in any of those cities but I’d read a lot of poetry.

Making one’s own sentences, one’s own contexts, appears fundamental at this stage of our perishing republic, of poesy or otherwise. For this reader, much of the romance of American fiction seems faded until one reads a novel like The Strangers. As with some of the more interesting 20th century sentence-makers, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Tomasso Landolfi, Robert Walser, or, closer to home, Gilbert Sorrentino and Roberto Bolaño, right from the start of The Strangers, Lim’s characters run away from the writer, get lost and hide within the writing.

The men and women in this novel don’t so much ‘jump off the page’ but become embedded further and further within the fabric of the writer’s language. They become prosed, if you will, luring the reader deeper into being read by the text, yielding an ever more enveloping experience. As with the actress Noona, who entirely fascinates one of the narrators: “What is captivating about her is the same thing that makes her a great actress. That is, she is the master of the intimate situation. Or, to be more precise, she is master of that situation where a few people are in the room.”

The effect of Lim’s prose is engrossing, perhaps even carnivalesque, in that the narrative context expands and contracts in a relentlessly comic manner. From the intimate, to the inscrutable, to the ridiculous, the story slips and starts, then veers off into entirely new territory. Toward the end of the novel, two of the several pairs of lovers/twins take a stroll in the park, and one of them, Oon, says to the afore-mentioned Noona:

“When this man who claimed to be my brother stopped speaking I excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I came back he was gone and our table had been cleared so I walked out. I thought he was a madman but I was disappointed he was gone and wanted to see him again—but I never did. Instead, I soon after quit my job at the gallery and got another better-paying one at an office. I decided to become rich myself so on my days off I began to take classes to become a real estate agent.”

Beside the vital consideration of technique — recall Ezra Pound’s observation about technique being a “… test of sincerity” — some truisms and cliché’s might begin to surface, such as ‘meta-fiction’, ‘new narrative,’ even the recently witnessed-in-print “experimental magical realism.” Lim’s narrative skill, however, undermines simplification, keeping the reader alert, as it defies the categories that plague much contemporary fiction. (I suppose one can thank MFA programs for this but that’s a whole other subject.)

Be all this as it may, Eugene Lim’s is intelligent writing. Consider the scene right after the above passage:

Oon had by this time finished his lemonade and put away his book. We got up and continued our walk through the park.

He said to me, “I love you.”

I said to him, “I love you too so what.”

As the story concludes with an oblique and lovely sentence, the narrative appears unending, capable still of multiplying in a multitude of directions:

“From the moment in the chair, my mistake or my silence—I still wasn’t sure which, and in any case they operated and existed entirely independent of my desires, and maybe it was both of them—pushed back and forth so as to surround and pervade each act of these strange twins.”

Ever-present the unnamed city, by turns first, third and second world. And when not involved in an at once familiar, disorienting and sometimes menacing cityscape, the various protagonists or ‘strangers’ continue what seems an indefinite trip on the grand vessel, with a vast and exceptionally comprehensive library. Perhaps, Lim’s is the vision of a rootless and self-absorbed urban gathering, cruising through time and space. Notable as are the precedents for this in 19the and 20th century American fiction, the results remain an all-too-familiar aimlessness, even, perhaps, an ultimate madness and destruction.

To call The Strangers international seems obvious, and in a sense a civil alternative to the sensational, apocalyptic landscapes of American exceptionalism (read more ‘tundra’). Thank god it feels like the end and the people who inhabit Lim’s world hardly seem to notice.

The Strangers
Eugene Lim
Black Square Editions
ISBN 978-0986005022