There’s a line in Eugene Lim’s Search History that is repeated several times throughout the novel. A character declares something they’ve heard impossible and their interlocutor quickly retorts: “Of course it isn’t.” And the matter, whatever it is, is simply left at that. It’s a refrain that tells us a bit about the characters involved, but also seems to double as a conversation between Lim and ourselves. He assures us that, yes, despite the novel’s many twists and turns, its loosely (if at all) connected storylines, and its seemingly outlandish premises, we should trust that the ride he’s taking us on is, in fact, in order. It’s a trust that we find is well-earned.
Most of the action that takes place in Search History is contained to just four chapters, each identically titled “Shaggy Dog.” In them, the novel’s protagonist, a man who is grieving the death of his close friend Frank Exit, and Donna Winters, his eleven-year-old partner in crime, embark on an adventure to capture a robot dog that “evolved to discover and emulate that which you most longed for.” To our protagonist, the dog becomes the literal reincarnation of Frank, and the wacky hijinks that unfold in the adventure that ensues—including, for example, the two stowing away on a freighter in Chile, “[scattering] banana peels” to escape their enemies in Qatar, and chasing Donna’s mother, Doctor Y, through the salt flats of the American Mountain West to try to prevent her from escaping to the moon—become a thinly veiled allusion to the inexplicable and winding paths that grief, and life, can sometimes take us down.
One of these paths has to do with the protagonist’s Korean American identity, a part of him he feels forced to confront following Frank’s death. As someone who is “second generation, [speaks] no Korean, and was raised in the terrifyingly blank white American suburbs,” he saw in his relationship with Frank, who was also Korean American, a connection to a people and a heritage that was distant to him all throughout his childhood. This likeness they shared became “paramount to [their] friendship and indeed [the protagonist’s] very sense of self.” Upon Frank’s death, he feels grief not just over the loss of a friend, but over a part of himself—his Korean American identity—that he feels has “died with Frank.”
At the center of the novel’s subplot is another unnamed character, whom a group of friends refer to as “the dysthymic AI scientist” (it’s implied that she may be the Doctor Y from the “Shaggy Dog” chapters). Her function in the novel is similar to that of “Frank’s dogified ghost”: her individuality is less important than what her friends associate with her, which is her attempt to build a neural net that uses artificial intelligence to write award-winning novels.
Through this project the group discusses a number of things, which among them, include the nature of art and its creation. One friend, Dave, states that “the heart of art … is the whole forfeiture of a dominant structure, of a pattern; it’s icon breaking, paradigm shifting. And usually this deracination, this uprooting, is through the merging or combination or conflation of hitherto disparate or incompatible ideas.” He goes on to argue that this kind of “human art” requires a “general, adaptable” kind of intelligence that is, at its core, impossible to replicate with the brute force methods the dysthymic AI scientist’s computers rely on.
They also muse on their position as Asian Americans who occupy certain white-dominated spaces. One character, who has achieved some degree of success as a poet, admits that they believe the poetry readings they attend, by their nature, “[service] the hegemony,” wants to better the situation for minorities, but stops short of extricating themself entirely: “And furthermore I don’t wish to be ashamed of [being in that white poetry room], will simultaneously campaign for a diverse and more representative future, but I am not entirely sure if the one pure option, that of opting out, is preferable to the messier and more compromised choices of, variously, staying in.”
It’s not lost on us that the only two people common to both storylines are Frank, who is dead, and the dysthymic AI scientist (if she is indeed Doctor Y), whom, after the first chapter, we cease to hear from. This ambiguity, the way Lim hints at connections but avoids confirming them outright is consistent throughout Search History: we can probably assume that Lim’s own reflections on the loss of a friend—revealed in one of the novel’s “Autobiographical Interludes”—informed the protagonist’s character, that the robot César Aira who narrates parts of the prologue is the same novel-writing AI that Doctor Y had worked on, and that the “adventure of the reader” mentioned in “The Prologue to the Prologue” is a metaphor for the protagonist and Donna’s own adventure. It’s a quality that highlights Lim’s ability to craft a cohesive narrative with disparate parts and can expand our idea of the shapes novels can or cannot take. We don’t always know precisely what is happening or who is speaking or what is being referenced but it also doesn’t feel all that important. We can feel that it—whatever it is—works.
There is a characteristic abruptness and lack of subtlety to the writing in Search History that makes its explorations on loss and identity and art, among other things, remarkably refreshing. Lim makes a cheeky reference to the Third World Liberation Front, a multi-ethnic coalition of students formed in 1968, by way of a character whose family, in 1968, opens a “Third World Liberation Diner,” where a “Japanese family serves cheap and fast Chinese food to a Black and Mexican and Filipino clientele.”
He has the protagonist and Donna, moments after totaling their Subaru in a 180-mile-an-hour car chase, argue whether life more resembles drift (“Much of life is drift … we must needs be oriented toward the sharp turns, the plot twists, the events which change the drift’s course”) or flux (“You’re just making shit up but think that you’re not. There are no collisions, events, gliding. There is only the unyielding continuation, a flux, which just happens and keeps on happening.”)
And in a cryptic one-paragraph-long chapter near the end of the novel, he has a mystery narrator interrupt the story and all but tell us that we should read the dog as a “MacGuffin”—a plot device through which the protagonist can process his grief—and that it really is less about the destination and more about the journey: “Because after long enough you forget what you wanted, what you were going for, so that the search becomes where you live, its history your universe. Even if you bet your entire life on this MacGuffin. Especially if you did. Only when you do, in fact.”
Search History is filled with serious and intelligent musings on the many topics it covers, but its defining characteristic is that it is a genuinely fun read. Lim’s writing gives you the sense that you’re talking to a friend with whom everything is just easy, where you might broach life’s big and messy questions but there’s never any pretense, where it’s okay to digress and meander and leave without coming to any kind of coherent answer. Relationships where, when things get too stuffy and philosophical, someone steps in and reminds us to relax, that the workings of the world are vast and uncertain and we don’t have to understand them, that, as individuals, all we have to do is find a way to live with ourselves. As one character states: “Oh god shut up, fuckwads. I mean jesus henry chrysanthemums. What are you trying to prove? The tide is beyond our approval or disapproval. Shit happens.”
Search History, by Eugene Lim. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, October 2021. 152 pages. $16.95, paper.
Michael Wong is a writer living in San Francisco.