Buttercream & Symbiosis: Joon Oluchi Lee's Neotenica
(Nightboat Books, 2020)
The deliciously absurd and uncanny visual that has accompanied my reading of Joon Oluchi Lee’s third novel Neotenica, published by Nightboat Books earlier this summer, has been the ubiquitously trending “is it cake?” videos populating Tik Tok and Instagram. Hours of summer have slid by with montages of seemingly innocuous everyday items (a roll of toilet paper, a carton of eggs, an eggplant) sliced open by a disembodied hand to divulge secret lives of confection and frosting. The reveal is quick and the reward is satisfying. Yes, everything is cake in the end—and yes, your senses will deceive you willingly. The resounding realization of this surrender is delight, and it is not dissimilar to what I felt reading Neotenica. In exactly 100 pages, the novel presents a pageant of characters navigating the dissonances between their private and public lives with the same perplexing outcomes and satisfying surprise as something cut open with a sharp knife to reveal that insides do not match outsides.
Set throughout the early 2000s in the Bay Area, Neotenica charts the relationship between a woman, Young Ae, and her husband who goes unnamed throughout the book. He is referred to as Young Ae’s husband, and in the very beginning, as Young Ae’s future husband. They meet on a Korean dating website for arranged marriages. They both hold vague creative professional and research interests, and bond over a deep shared adoration of their adopted dog Marilyn. They do not love each other, but their marriage is mutually useful: Young Ae is partial to material items and her husband’s inheritance, and Young Ae’s husband is partial to his wife’s indifference regarding him having sex with anonymous men online. In some ways, the two of them function as halves of a symbiotic, epicene whole. Their affairs, which they both conduct, provide a scaffolding to the novel. The frequent sex in the book is never transcendent, and Neotenica is hardly sexy; it instead serves to whittle a notion of personhood, in relation to the beauties and attractions of other people. Sex propels character development. Chapters introduce brief, but compelling vignettes of various extramarital partners narrated from their own perspectives, which read like short stories. For both Young Ae and her husband, their entanglements are an expression of id: there is no moral crisis in their adultery, which is but a practice to explore the world with curiosity and wonder.
Extraordinary enough, Lee prophecies the digital cake deception trend on page three of Neotenica, when he introduces the tender affect of his protagonist: “if you could have punctured his soul with a small hollow needle you would have found that the stuff inside was as soft as buttercream…”. Lee’s metaphors are unexpected and delightful. He trains an obsessive eye on textures and colors, breathing neuroticisms into his characters by describing the clothing in their closets and the furniture in their apartments. Although this uninhibited detailing alongside a wan plotline makes the prose read as uneven at times, Neotenica’s form is primarily experimental. Lee pares the structure of a novel by stripping it down to its essential ingredients and then verbosely decorates: sugar flowers, icing, saccharine hue and all. In this pandemic time—an endless moment of scarcity and paucity facilitated by a small few hoarding the earth’s wealth and resource—abundance is necessary, and Lee’s ample language suggests that examining subjectivity is a political act, as is his character’s navigating a queer Asian body through institutions like marriage, white supremacy, and the world.
Consider the book’s opening scene: Young Ae’s husband rides the BART train after a party. It’s San Francisco prior to big tech and the influx of hypercapitalism, like the quiet before the storm. Drunk, and smelling of debauchery, Young Ae’s husband is beaten up by a group of men. The experience is haphazardly religious: he describes the men as a “pack of angels” with hair like “licorice candy floss.” The moment stands in contrast to the end of the chapter, when two policemen (white and Asian) jeer homophobically at Young Ae’s husband after he refuses to provide details on his assailants. The abjection and the language Lee uses in these initial scenes linger throughout the whole book. Violence, like sex, can be spurious and even anonymous, but Young Ae’s husband embraces the event with a perplexing calmness that typifies his subjectivity throughout the book. The men who attack him are Black, but he doesn’t “think of any racist words like ‘gang.’” In fact, Lee never gives a motive for the attack. He does, however, tell us what the motive is not:
He didn't know what made the army want to pounce on him but he knew the feelings that came out of them. It had something to do with West Oakland. It wasn’t anything about bullets, though; it wasn’t anything about guns or old cars wearing chrome stilettos. It wasn’t about welfare, it wasn’t about no fathers, it wasn’t about Rodney King. It wasn’t about cops, it wasn’t about bags of pot or fat bottles of malt liquor with dumb obscene names. It wasn’t about Hunter’s Point, it wasn’t about the predator and the prey. It wasn’t about low income housing, it wasn’t about GEDs. It wasn’t about AIDS, it wasn’t about babymamas. It wasn’t about the war in Iraq and it wasn’t about the overcrowded prison system that seemed to encircle the entire peaceful, still hippy-dippy Bay area. It wasn’t about history and it wasn't about hate.
Our protagonist is ostensibly aware of social and historical forces, power structures and institutions, but he reaches for an explanation so far outside of them that he finds none. Describing what things aren’t rather than what things are allows the story to push up on the boundaries of language and what it cannot capture. By presenting the novel’s reality as a study—neither conviction, nor observation—Lee plays with the sort of reason and meaning that uphold narrative. Embracing chaos is thus a practice of rejecting the false dichotomy of race in America that vilifies Black people and erases non-Black people of color. Young Ae’s husband refuses to participate as he spectates his assailants as an anonymous, aestheticized force of beauty. It isn’t passivity, but a rejection of otherness in service of nothingness. Lee envisages his character a subjectivity of Asiatic egolessness beyond the limits of this language, which is constrained by the limits of white supremacy. This moment prefaces the novel, and its spurious abjection, aesthetic appreciation, and overall unsettling sense of randomness imbricates a book that is as compelling as it is strange.
The Asian body—in vestiment, in sex, in public—becomes the defining is in a story of isn’ts. Young Ae’s husband’s Korean heritage is among the only facets of his identity that is plainly labeled, although mostly in service of illustrating the character’s difference. Lee writes,
[Young Ae’s husband] was a man who wanted to devote his life to himself without becoming the freak antisocial uncle around his brothers’ already procreative families. Nagging is a Korean national pastime and cultural heritage, and he wanted the freedom to be as freaky as he liked, with a pretty person by his side. [Young Ae] understood. He liked marijuana and the occasional anonymous blowjob from gay men, but these vices seemed to balance his fanatical but sincere devotion to social justice.
Besides vague references to his profession, Young Ae’s husband’s inclination towards social justice seems to be the way he lives in his queer body among the tedious, continuous navigation of society. The insouciant affairs and materialism give texture to the world. Clothing is used to signify the surprising and serendipitous nature of encounters, as when Young Ae meets her future husband for the first time and they are wearing the same J.Crew sweater. Buttercream re-emerges as a cosmetic metaphor. Lee mentions that their honeymoon was omitted to purchase expensive designer clothes instead, which is preferable to the couple that values, above all, the shimmering aesthetics of juvenilia.
Young Ae’s husband’s double bind is that he experiences life as a nameless passive spectator, but at the versos, he is the subject of the novel, arriving at the contradictory core of his convergent identities: being both invisible and hypervisible simultaneously. Like a marriage arranged by digital algorithm, or as anonymous, random encounters, Lee’s world is one of disorder and chance. Aesthetics, pleasure, and canine admiration are the green lights across the harbor. Neotenica presumably derives its title from neoteny, a word that describes a number of theses related to human development, including retaining child-like features in adulthood, or experiencing early sexual maturation. It is a concept has been appropriated into the pseudosciences of attraction, or aesthetics, to whatever extent its useful to understand what makes sex, and beauty, and outsides seeming like insides, possible. Within either definition, Neotenica resists easy codifications. Through their refracting, and converging identities, the characters of Neotenica function in tandem; a warm ball of sweet matter hurtling through space and yearning for the freedom to exist as itself, not as its facsimile.