Often, the Tournament of Books brings to my attention a few great books I’d never heard of. Last year, it was Black Wave; this year, it was Lucky Boy. I was hoping Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim would be a second. It certainly sounds like it could be my kind of thing — two teenage boys bond over comic books, while a group of superheroes contemplate life. It’s the kind of quirky, oddball book that may only show up somewhere like the TOB.
But I’m sorry to say that even at just 163 pages, I found it unbearably tedious by the end. A lot of it has to do with the weird herky-jerky rhythm of the story. Most of the chapters begin with the superheroes gathering for lunch or dinner or being summoned onto a mission, and then just as things get going, someone starts telling some sort of story that reveals some significant truth. At first, it’s kind of funny, especially when the characters start building on each other’s stories by saying things like “I know just what you mean” and then telling another story that has hardly anything to do with the previous one. Still, by the end of the book, every time a story within the story appeared, I felt deflated. The book never went anywhere.
That’s not to say that the stories within the story didn’t have some charm. I especially enjoyed supervillain Ms Mistleto’s description of how she got caught up in a protest that then led her to occupy a skyscraper for skyscraper for years. The alternative to occupying the skyscraper was to be forced into a “corporate labor camp (where, we knew, prisoners would spend the rest of their lives doing monotonous low-level data analysis in exchange for the consumer spending units and daily gruel.)” There was the story of an artist who painted the following statement on her paintings:
This painting cannot be bought or sold for more than the total wages of six months full-time employment at the minimum wage as determined by the state of New York. If this painting should be sold for greater than this amount, may both the buyer and seller be considered shit by the entire world and by themselves, and may they spend the afterlife as sad and angry and hungry and hopeless as poverty makes.
You may get the sense that this book has a point of view on capitalism and art and organizing, and it does, although it’s not always clear how much it is parodying anti-capitalist views and how much it is expressing them. (A little bit of both, in my opinion.)
The thing is, I kind of enjoyed some of the characters’ musings and the stories they tell. I just got tired of the framing device. It wasn’t so much that they were superheroes — that was pretty fun, because if superheroes existed, they’d be part of the “system” too, and they’d probably have opinions about it. The problem was the way the book would start on one anecdote and then veer into another without picking the original story up again. The structure made it hard to sort out who was who or where they were in time. The teenage boys who begin the novel are pretty much dropped until the end. And then there are periodic messages to a group of cyborgs that don’t connect much with anything else.
This would have been less frustrating had it just been a set of linked short stories, each existing in isolation yet all of them part of the same world. I can appreciate that Lim was trying to do something unique, but it really didn’t work for me.