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The Escapist Fantasy of Fandom: Esther Yi’s Y/N


The Escapist Fantasy of Fandom: Esther Yi’s Y/N

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The Escapist Fantasy of Fandom: Esther Yi’s Y/N


Published on March 21, 2023


The premise of Esther Yi’s debut novel Y/N—a woman who plunges deep into parasocial devotion to a K-pop idol—is “blissfully stupid,” she professes. “Blissful” seems fair enough. After all, given the state of the world, who doesn’t need a little escapist fantasy? But I can’t help but wonder, for Yi, where exactly the “stupid[ity]” she speaks of resides. Is it in the unattainability of love with a celebrity? Its lack of functional purpose? The ridiculousness of a consumer culture where such impossible romance is not only marketed, but in high demand?

Or, when Yi says “stupid” does she simply mean the beautiful, quiet blankness that might spread across one’s brain when faced with the image of a flawless boy? Because, on first read, Y/N is anything but.

Yi inhabits the voice of her protagonist—a writer with a mind-numbing copywriting job—with effortlessly crisp lucidity. Surrounded by intellectuals who busy themselves with mincing metaphysical questions about where their cells might die, have higher humanities degrees and treat art and politics as hobbies, she is existentially troubled, out-of-sync. She has a boyfriend, Masterson, who’s as gently condescending as he is caring. But even the simplest sentiments from him such as “I want to feel at home with [you]” and “how are you?” evoke within the narrator a kind of dissociated resistance—“personally, whenever I asked “how are you,” I actually meant, “I am not you… I did not like to be related to.” On the contrary, the narrator’s obsession with Moon, her K-pop idol of choice, seems, if not satisfactory, more generative. “He feeds my imagination more than you do,” she tells Masterson, to which he answers, “Of course he does… because he exists in your imagination.”

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Upon the announcement that Moon is retiring and leaving his group, the narrator embarks upon a journey to Seoul to find him and ask questions that seem as impossible to answer as they are troubling to her to pose. Interspersed with scenes from the self-insert fanfiction she writes, that uses the moniker “Y/N” or “your name” to allow a fan to imagine inserting themselves into stories of romantic encounters with the idol of their choice, Yi’s book becomes a heady calibration between the surreal and banal that recalls Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs—lacing together a cast of seeking, sublimating characters as they move through archetypal spaces, notice their strangely spectral bodies, are pulled along vortices of desire.

Y/N is frighteningly, coolly adept at vivisecting experiences of fandom obsession without suggesting it is above them. Fannish relationships to idols are not monolithic, ranging from fans who actually want to date the objects of their affection, to those who prefer to keep them at a distance like uncanny, virtual creatures. These perspectives tend to be revealing about each person’s traits and idiosyncrasies; that the narrator takes an esoteric position seems significant. She projects her existential angst onto Moon with desperate piety, yes, but wants, above all, to prove that she’s unique, not at all like the other fans. Analogous, perhaps, to the haughty ambivalence she feels towards scripted social performances of connection and being-human. A thorough knowledge of fan subculture allows Yi to wield humor, and a kind of self-deprecating cruelty in her unsparing excavation of it. Watching Moon’s v-log and wondering if she should open or close her mouth, the narrator notes that “even the possibility of looking dumb in front of him was a privilege beyond my reach.” Moon’s fans are called “Livers” because [They keep the band] alive, like critical organs.” But Y/N isn’t solely a tongue-in-cheek parody or criticism of fandom either.

What I’m stuck on is this: “blissfully stupid” is perhaps the most common negative accusation cast against K-pop fandom and its blinding fantasy, but it is also for the most part true. It bears mentioning that I am, at the very moment of writing this review, listening to Volcano, by Han Jisung of K-pop band Stray Kids, set on an infinite Youtube loop. Since my job involves a fair amount of cultural criticism, it would be easy for me to make an argument for the aesthetic value of this song despite its pop-music context; a narcotic, dreamy melody cut with harsher rap-anthem swells, its lyrics leaning into the melancholia of subterranean queer guilt. But that’s not all I’m here for. The truth is that Han Jisung has the face of a woodland creature, the off-kilter swag of someone who’s overcompensating and a very pretty mouth. My enjoyment of this song is absolutely not cerebral, it’s mostly shallow and horny. And the real provocation of Yi’s novel is that it doesn’t try to reject, reclaim or put extraneous value on fandom so much as treat its “blissful stupid[ity]” seriously, as a means towards new forms of philosophy and phenomenology; stranger modes of inquiring, believing and knowing.

Spoilers follow.

Because of this, the world of Y/N feels less realist than it is a labyrinthine progression of institutions and archetypes that one might find in a video game, or by way of pilgrimage or myth. It’s no coincidence that Moon and his bandmates, Venus, Mercury and Sun, are named after planets of the solar system, so cosmic and elemental are they to the narrator. And as she continues her journey, she moves through establishments such as the Shelter for Missing Children, where a man named “Moon’s scraps” resides, formed from the detritus left from God’s creation of Moon’s extraordinary being. She travels to Polygon Plaza, which seems similar to a music corporations’ headquarters, but is compared to “monastery: a place where the dissolution of the self produced moments of astonishing self-expression.”

For the narrator, Moon’s pure existence supplants the belief systems and extreme experiences that usually shape one’s world-view—sex, religion, love and art. As such, it would be easy to see the people and places she encounters as symbols, emblematic of genre tropes, ciphers of power or conventional systems, synthesized to produce an idol-centric theology, a new sacred text. But Yi’s images are never secure in their signification. They are polyvalent; not grounded but mobile and slippery. When we meet the Music Professor in Polygon Plaza, she is both an anti-authoritarian autodidact opposed to academic knowledge, and a god-like creator—not of art, but of the conditions that give rise to individuals like Moon—who are more like conduits, best poised to create sublime aesthetic experiences for others. When we meet the Caregiver, she is both ex-housewife and clinical psychologist, residing in a place called the Sanctuary, which is devoted to “emotional craftsmanship” and could easily be Zen retreat or mental health institution.

For me though, the most radical element of Y/N’s perverse worldbuilding is the narrator’s unapologetically libidinal attraction to Moon, which is seen not as corollary but spiritual in and of itself. Indeed, at the beginning of the novel, she had already heard about Moon’s group, the details of their lives and careers, from her roommate Vavra. But it’s only when she’s faced with Moon’s physical presence that she becomes hooked. Facts and logic are irrelevant— “all [she’d] needed was to begin was the singularity of his neck.” And when the narrator finally meets Moon in the Sanctuary, and realizes he cannot be what she imagines she needs; when she is faced with the disappointment and strange revulsion of coming face to face with one’s God, she still has the oddly ecstatic experience in beholding his real body. Peering through a crack, she spies him with Maehwa, his maybe-lover, and is captivated by his penis, which “began a steady expansion into itself. It was as hard as a rock when it wasn’t as soft as an eyelid. As the tip tightened into contour, it assumed the appearance of an ancient arrowhead.” The moment reads as though she’s stumbled upon some kind of essential universal secret. Flesh and spirit here do not make up a distinct binary but form a conflated singularity.

Indeed, there’s a striking moment in Y/N, where, on the phone with her uncle, the narrator’s stilted Korean creates a terrible miscommunication—”I’d been asking my yes/no questions in an intonation meant to signal declarative statements. Everything I wasn’t sure about – he’d thought I was expressing with absolute certainty.” It’s arguable that this imposed urge to pick one side of a binary, to declare oneself and therefore necessarily be misunderstood plagues the narrator’s existential condition. Because declarative sentences are what make up a person, sure, but enunciating “I am X” or “I want Y”—any of these unified formulations of identity meant to forge relation usually feel inapt, and only beget more questions, reveal how aspect of ourselves are frustratingly inane or unutterable. “I was a person,” the narrator says, “I knew this nothing else, that I was a person, however hapless, however void.”

Sylvia Wynters, the Caribbean novelist and critic once wrote against the impulse to “rhetorically demystify” texts, instead advocating for a practice that “seeks to identify not what texts and their signifying practices can be interpreted to mean but what they can be deciphered to do.” This seems like a better way to read Y/N, which is saturated with details and highly specific contexts that are supposed to describe the legible structure of the narrator’s subjectivity, but ultimately serve to mislead us. Instead, the novel enacts how our lives, powers, desires fluctuate and often in fact, undermine one another to consume any possible coherence.

Luxuriously indecipherable, Y/N might not pound with the vivid lifeblood of other recent fiction about fandom, such as Rin Usami’s Idol, Burning, which empathetically delves into the material valences of idol obsession and its impacts on a young woman. But Y/N’s aphoristic surface is precarious, flexible, never going so far as to yield the pleasure of making sense. Rather, it dressed me down; sliced me open to reveal the clean emptiness of a floating, futile state of existence.

Y/N is published by Astra House.

Trisha Low is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) and Socialist Realism (Emily Books, 2019). She lives in the East Bay of California.

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