Flux is a dizzying, dazzling debut novel about trauma, time travel, and 80s cop shows

Flux is the debut novel from writer Jinwoo Chong. It just came out this week from Melville House publishing, and folks, I'm here to tell you: it's fantastic. Here' the official synopsis:

A blazingly original and stylish debut novel about a young man whose reality unravels when he suspects his mysterious employers have inadvertently discovered time travel—and are using it to cover up a string of violent crimes . . .

Four days before Christmas, eight-year-old Bo loses his mother in a tragic accident, twenty-eight-year-old Brandon loses his job after a hostile takeover of his big-media employer, and forty-eight-year-old Blue, a key witness in a criminal trial against an infamous now-defunct tech startup, struggles to reconnect with his family.

So begins Jinwoo Chong's dazzling time-bending debut that blends elements of neo-noir and speculative fiction as the lives of Bo, Brandon, and Blue begin to intersect, uncovering a network of secrets and an experimental technology that threatens to upend life itself. Intertwined with them is the saga of an iconic '80s detective show, Raider, whose star actor has imploded spectacularly after revelations of long-term concealed abuse.

Flux is a haunting and sometimes shocking exploration of the cyclical nature of grief, of moving past trauma, and of the pervasive nature of whiteness within the development of Asian identity in America.

Re-reading that blurb after having finished this novel, it's interesting to see the clever ways in which it misleads potential readers. But that's also a fairly accurate representation of the great storytelling that Chong does within the story of the book anyway. It's the kind of story where even the twists that seem inevitable and telegraphed end up surprising you in remarkably powerful ways — the kind of thing where, sure, maybe you saw it coming, but you didn't expect it to happen quite like this.

That's largely due to two of Chong's clear strengths as a writer: an ability to marry poetic abstraction with simple, accessible prose; and the insight to anchor everything emotionally in the characters. On a basic craft level, the writing in this book is gorgeous. Chong knows when to pull back and keep things clear and direct, and how to really dig his writing heels in with sprawling sentences that grab you like some hypnotic spiral that spins you past the center of some fart away song where the chorus keeps repeating but it's never quite the same. Even the way he distinguishes between Bo and Blue's third-person narration and Brandon's first-person inner monologue is full of delectable subtleties. These voices are distinct, except when they are very intentionally not, and Chong employs those moments of linguistic befuddlement like a surgeon with a scalpel.

Chong is able to pull this off because he never loses sight of the emotional center of the story. 28-year-old Brandon, the primary protagonist, is a stunted young adult, listless and lost for a multitude of reasons beyond whatever early childhood trauma he may be carrying with him. Some of that has to do with Brandon's sense of identity. He's bisexual, and biracial; though he's tended to sleep more with men, because it's easier, and though he's mostly white-passing, as the Korean features he inherited from his mother have softened over the years (much like his grasp on her native tongue). It's a powerful act of representation to have a queer Asian protagonist in a book like this. But it also feels powerfully organic. Brandon's identity is core to the book not because the world is biphobic and racist (though it certainly is, and that certainly comes up) — it matters because of what it means to Brandon's sense of self, and how it connects to his relationships, specifically with his family. In the end, it's a very personal story, but it's the details that make the story feel so organic and real. It's all anchored in the character's emotional journey: Brandon is dealing with a lot of grief, maybe even more than he realizes.

This is also true in the way the book explores things like Cancel Culture, media representation, and Big Tech swindling. Throughout the book, Brandon's narration frequently ruminates on a fictional TV show called Raider — a sort of generic late-80s tough guy cop show, that was Brandon's favorite as a kid, and which he still turns to for comfort as an adult. Part of the reason young Brandon connected with the show so much is because it was one of the only shows at the time to depict Asian characters. Sure, it was prone to cringey orientalist stereotypes, like plenty of other shows at the time, but it meant something to him then, and that's something he carries with him. Even as he realizes how harmful those racist stereotypes were. Even when the lead actor, whom Brandon still looks up as his childhood hero, is publicly exposed for being a sexually abusive piece of shit. You would not be wrong to describe this aspect of the book as a commentary on "cancel culture" and the way we grapple with the newly-realized ugliness of things that we once cherished. But again, Chong is less interested in lecturing on large social ideas, and more focused on how those grander issues impact his protagonists on a directly personal level. Brandon's need to re-evaluate his favorite TV show in light of this new revelation resonates with his other struggles around his racial and sexual identities. Flux examines these modern issues with remarkable complexity, yes, but Chong never loses sight of what these things mean to Brandon in particular.

Similarly, much of the plot revolves around a fraudulent tech startup led by a charmingly aloof woman who is professionally swindling investors for their billions. The allusion to Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes is clear, but again, Chong isn't offering some specific pointed commentary on that situation; and it's definitely not a book "about" a Theranos / Holmes analog. Those are just organic details that illustrate the world that Chong has created, and which all connect back to Brandon's personal journey (as well as Bo's and Blue's).

I know I haven't even touched on the sci-fi elements or time travel plot of Flux, but that's because it's harder to discuss without giving things away. What I will say, however, is what I've been saying: it all connects organically and emotionally to Brandon's personal journey, in a really thoughtful way. Again, you wouldn't be wrong to describe Flux as a sci-fi noir, or a time travel techno thriller. But that's not what the story's about. And I think that's the most impressive thing about the work that Jinwoo Chong has done here.

Flux [Jinwoo Chong / Melville House]