Image of Flux
Release Date: 
March 21, 2023
Melville House
Reviewed by: 

“At the age of 27, author Jinwoo Chong is already a major literary talent.”

Jinwoo Chong’s brilliant debut novel is a cornucopia of stories, genres, and moods. Chong is a master juggler, keeping many balls in the air in a narrative that alternates satire of capitalistic chicanery, celebrity culture, and Asian stereotypes with parody of 1980s television melodrama, echoes of time-travel science fiction, and powerful episodes of family trauma.

Chong works his magic through the alternating stories of three characters.            

Eight-year-old Bo is traumatized by the loss of his mother in a freak accident outside his school. Bo’s grief and rage are so powerful that they make it impossible for him to relate to his well-meaning father, who is trying to make a happy Christmas for his sons despite feeling overwhelmed, and his hyper-emotional younger brother. Bo rejects his family, which leads to his first physical wound. Bo’s only solace is Raider, a violent television police drama. 

Brandon, a 28-year-old Asian American, has a bad day. It is almost Christmas. His boss, who is also his lover, informs him that the upscale celebrity magazine he works for has been sold and that he and his fellow employees are out of work. After spending all his severance check on a fancy leather man purse, Brandon falls down an elevator shaft. Somehow, he survives that catastrophe, and meets Lev, a voluble super salesman who offers him a high-paying job with a new startup that claims to produce lifetime batteries. Brandon isn’t clear on what he is supposed to do to earn his large salary and rent-free apartment. The company’s real focus is on the possibility of time travel, and Brandon is their guinea pig.

Brandon is obsessed with the same television police drama as Bo, in part because it contains Asian-American characters. Even though the presentations are stereotypical, they at least offer some visibility. In fact, his first-person narration is addressed to the central character of the show, the only person to whom he can fully express himself. Brandon would like to have the combination of toughness and tenderness of the character he refers to as “jacket guy.”

Blue is a 48-year-old man who lost his voice in an accident 20 years ago. He has been given temporary vocal implants so that he can do a television interview about his past testimony on corporate chicanery where he worked. It is Christmas time, and Blue pays a visit to his ex-wife and 19-year-old daughter before embarking on a dangerous journey in time. Will that journey change everything for Blue and the other characters?

In the background are a group of celebrities. Io is the glamorous CEO of Flux, the company that Brandon works for. She has become a media celebrity, though it isn’t clear how much power she wields. Is she merely a corporate image? Actor Antonin Haubert became a big star through his appearances on Raider, but was later erased because of sexual malfeasance. Antonin’s son Hadrien seems to move from young sex symbol to mysterious political figure. The fictional Raider’s onscreen adventures are described in detail because he represents a masculine ideal young Bo and Brandon would like to reach.

The city Brandon lives in seems out of control. Power blackouts occur regularly. An elevator door opens onto an empty shaft. But there is the possibility of love if characters can accept it, and Flux is about various forms of love: love for family, sexual love, and a deeper romantic love. Brandon meets Min the day he is fired and, through her, finds a connection and a sense of meaning: “The way someone can make you feel like you make sense even if you might not even think that you do.” Brandon is a man “who needs protection, who needs help, who is one step away from total chaos and teeters so precariously on its edge that it’s almost sickening to witness.” Blue has a devoted, loving daughter. Yet lack of self-love makes it impossible for characters to respond fully to the love they are offered.

The company Flux is named for the Flux Capacitator that allows characters to move around in time in the film Back to the Future. The novel’s epigraph comes from H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Flux is built in part on a traditional question for time travel fiction: Would it be possible to go back in time and prevent a disaster from happening? What would be the ramifications of such an action? Brandon is not capable of controlling his journeys through time.

The fictional city where Flux takes place becomes very real during the course of the novel. The giant headquarters of Flux are described in great detail. Bo, Brandon, and Blue may feel constant disorientation, but they live in settings that are exquisitely described. Yet we have little sense of what these characters look like. Their physicality is defined by wounds, scars, absences: Bo’s broken arm, Brandon’s black eye, Blue’s lack of a voice.

This description makes Flux sound like a very heavy novel. The book is another picture of contemporary anomie, but it is rich, complex, and highly enjoyable.    

Like many successful first novels, Flux explodes with ideas, themes, situations, as if the author had to include everything in his imagination. It makes one wonder what the second novel will be like. At the age of 27, author Jinwoo Chong is already a major literary talent.