Y/N, the startling, assured and exuberantly strange debut novel from Esther Yi, opens with a scene of secular conversion. Yi’s protagonist, an unnamed Korean woman living in Berlin, is offered a spare ticket to a performance by ‘the pack of boys’, a similarly unnamed Korean boyband. The friend says that this concert will change her life. ‘But I don’t want my life to change’, the narrator responds. ‘I want my life to stay in one place and be one thing as intensely as possible.’
The former does not come to pass—instead of staying put, the narrator embarks on an odyssey, chasing the idol she’s obsessed with—but the latter is accurate. Y/N’s narrator lives, and loves, intensely. At the concert, she joins in ritualistic worship of ‘the boys’, each of whom is named after a celestial body. ‘What does it mean to die on this planet?’ they ask. ‘A human being is a particle of dust in a galaxy.’ They consider their own obliteration, too; ‘Cock the gun of your eyes’, one sings, a jarring image. ‘I will make myself easy to shoot.’
From this moment on, the protagonist is consumed by her affection for Moon, the group’s youngest member, known for his serpentine dance moves, his bleached hair and his disturbingly muscular neck. ‘I knew I loved him because I liked him better than the others’, she says—a calculatedly bland statement that marks her initiation into a cult that is more about loving than about the loved one, more about absence than access. Yi depicts fandom as a hypnotic state of longing, the nightmarish pursuit of a love object so obscure as to be fundamentally unknowable.
Y/N’s characters are prone to flights of equivocation, delivered in an esoteric tone that shouldn’t work, but does, because of how starkly it contrasts with its subject matter. K-pop occupies an unusual place in culture; to those who don’t follow it, it’s trivial, and largely invisible, but to those who do it’s a source of identity, community and meaning. Fans of BTS, the boyband on which Yi’s ‘pack of boys’ appears to be based, call themselves the ‘ARMY’ and are meticulously self-organised. They disseminate translations of Korean interviews, band together to sabotage Trump rallies, and number, at present, 48.5 million followers on Twitter/X, 62.1 million on Tiktok, and just under 74 million on Instagram.
The protagonist’s boyfriend, Masterson, critiques K-pop as ‘data disguised as philosophy, information disguised as art’. He calls pop idols ‘lowercase gods’, with fandom occupying the place once held by religion, ‘a vending machine for manifestation and fulfilment’. The narrator, meanwhile, dismisses contemporary fiction as ‘mind-numbingly easy to agree with’, mirroring ‘the pieties of the day with absurd ardour’. Instead she turns to fanfiction, turgid but refreshingly disagreeable, reading and writing her own stories about someone in a relationship with Moon. These narratives interweave with the main plot, bringing us into the protagonist’s mind, and blurring the lines between reality and dreamworld, idol and idolator, product and consumer.
Writing on K-pop can occasionally read like the author has Stockholm syndrome, raising suspicions that a group of young men with perfect hair and suspiciously hydrated-looking skin are holding a gun to the writer’s head. I suspect that many fans motivated to write are in too deep to do so objectively. Y/N, however, subverts expectations by lovingly attacking its subject, deconstructing K-pop as a form of religion. In her search for Moon, Yi’s narrator encounters the adoring and the damned, fans engaging in an ecstatic erasure of the self by attempting to become one with their idol.
The book’s title maps neatly onto this idea; ‘Y/N’ stands for ‘Your Name’, a genre of fanfiction in which the protagonist is left deliberately blank, a floating perspective that any reader can adopt as their own. This might allow fans to project their own identities onto Y/N, but in Yi’s depiction the opposite is true; devotion has a neutralising effect, erasing individuality. ‘Anyone who pursues the delusional fantasy of being Moon’s chosen one can expect to have their identity wiped out’, one fan warns the narrator. ‘You are not Y/N. All of us are, all at once.’
Another debut novel released this summer, also by a Korean-American author, speaks to similar states of longing and conflicted identity. Gina Chung’s Sea Change features a protagonist attempting to drop out of her life, and flirting with oblivion, albeit in very different ways to Y/N‘s nameless, hypnotised main character.
Sea Change follows Ro, short for Aurora, a 30-year-old woman with abandonment issues and a complex family history, whose day job at an aquarium sees her taking care of a giant Pacific octopus. Sea Change unfolds in a world identical to our own apart from one detail: a mission to Mars is ready for launch, and Ro’s boyfriend, Tae, a school teacher, has been selected by lottery to take part. His departure triggers memories of a deeper hurt, the loss of Ro’s father, a marine biologist, who vanished into the ‘Bering Vortex’ years earlier on a research mission.
As Sea Change progresses, it becomes apparent that Ro is caught in a vortex of her own. She drinks until the point of blacking out, then insists on driving home. She dislikes just about everyone around her–her manager at work is ‘fairly harmless and extremely irritating’, while another coworker is ‘an emotional vampire’. She clashes with her former best friend, Younhee, who now spends more time planning her wedding and uploading ‘lifestyle content’ to Instagram than she does with Ro, as well as her mother, a woman whose ‘veneer of chilly poise and disapproval’ conceals deep hurts of her own. The only thing Ro really seems to care about is Dolores, the octopus, who is on the brink of being taken away from the aquarium and rehomed with an investor.
Chung’s novel is at its strongest when it allows Ro’s self-destructive impulses room to breathe, dramatising the ways in which loss and dysfunction at a young age can impact later life. Ro simultaneously craves and fears attachment; she seeks out, then pushes away affection before it can be taken from her. This spiral plays out against the background of a first-generation immigrant experience—Ro’s parents moved from Korea to America for her father’s work—and Chung brings to life a particular kind of torment many readers, immigrant or otherwise, will relate to: the struggle to carry the hopes of parents who have themselves disappointed you.
Sea Change is a portrait of a young woman trapped in a hellish loop, rejecting the expectations her parents have projected onto her, but finding herself unable to move forward as a result. The aquarium is a safe retreat from the world, the octopus a friend who cannot talk back. It’s as though Ro is afraid to try, afraid to risk anything beyond apathy. Many readers will recognise this tendency, and will have passed through ‘sea changes’ of their own. Where this book falters, however, is in its tone; several chapters in, Ro’s voice starts to feel adolescent, judgmental and occasionally grating.
Per the title, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Ro eventually changes, and realises that this approach to life isn’t working. This raises the question of what Chung’s intention was in creating the character, and inhabiting her worldview for almost all of the book. Ro’s problems are presented as stemming from intergenerational trauma, issues that she never asked to inherit, and it’s not her fault that she’s depressed. But her father and mother—a fiercely intelligent but unreliable marine scientist and an aloof, but equally passionate and gifted soprano—feel like richly developed, compelling characters. By limiting the reader to Ro’s flattened, depressive view of them both, Chung denies her characters their full potential.
Noting this prompts me to address the now rather tiresome debate around ‘unlikable female narrators’; no doubt Ro’s flaws are deliberately written-in, but her self-destruction would be more compelling were she not quite so smug, so certain that everyone around her is wrong. Ro has an octopus fact for every occasion, forever wishing humans could be more like them. She places herself in opposition to the people around her, and in doing so, denies them the full spectrum of their humanity. Younhee is brushed off as businesslike and fake. Tae is dismissed for wanting to ‘fix’ her, while all his exes are ‘white girls’ with ‘glossy hair and LinkedIn pages and carefully curated Instagram profiles’, describing a position of racial privilege, but also a vacuous niceness, a simpering corporate femininity at odds with Ro, who doesn’t wear dresses, and says, at one point, that she doesn’t know what ‘combination skin’ means, using body lotion on her face instead of moisturiser.
It’s strange how even now, in this Barbenheimer year of ‘bimbocore’ and pink paint shortages, the ‘not like other girls’ line endures. At times these elements of Ro’s personality feel calculated, as do the octopus- and Mars-related subplots. They threaten to overwhelm an otherwise sincere and sympathetic novel, leaving this reader, at least, wondering if Chung added them out of concern that presenting Ro as an ordinary young woman in crisis—whose boyfriend is leaving her not for another planet, but simply because he wants out—might throw the character’s flaws into sharp relief.
That said, Ro is relatable in her need for independence and connection at the same time. The novel succeeds as a study of intergenerational differences and the bonds that overcome them; by far the most interesting element of this book is Ro’s relationship with her mother, who is every inch the product of a different country, a different time and a different set of experiences. Her father, meanwhile, is distant even before his disappearance into the Vortex, caring more about sea creatures and career advancement than he does about his family. Parental conflict and neglect leave scars, and Ro becomes a prisoner of her own need for male approval, loving and resenting Tae in equal measure.
Loss and longing animate both these novels, which feature female protagonists at the end of their twenties, each confronting their own unstable identities. Both books speak to a moment in time when feminism has achieved many of its goals, offering women power, money and choice, with the condition that they participate in a system which will also dehumanise them. While their responses are very different, the protagonists of both novels find themselves in a spiritual wilderness, suffering, suspicious of what adulthood apparently offers them.
It’s revealing that the narrator of Y/N readily abandons her life and job in Berlin and travels to Seoul to find Moon when he suddenly retires. She is happier to embark on a meaningful, near-impossible quest than to confront her immediate reality. ‘How was it that I missed someone I’d never met before?’ she asks. ‘Someone I hoped to meet one day. Could this mean it was possible to miss the future?’ Yi’s portrayal of the twilight of the idol, his face gradually removed from billboards, his sponsorship deals called off, is morbidly compelling; it’s a slow removal, not only of the performer himself, but of everyone who has built an identity around him. When the narrator eventually tracks down Moon, and gets him to read his own fanfiction, we’re given a scene of narrative cannibalism so wincingly awkward and hypnotically strange that we cannot look away.
Sea Change, too, is set entirely on a threshold, glancing backwards and forwards between phases of adult life, but also between generations, cultures and identities. Ro is born in Indiana, soon after her parents left Seoul; her mother speaks to her in Korean, surrounds herself with Korean people at her church, shops at a Korean supermarket and approves of Tae, Ro’s ex, because he is Korean and speaks the language better than her daughter. The conflicts between Ro and her mother stem from cultural differences as much as personal ones; she’s expected to embody the values and ideals of a culture she has only ever known through her parents, and cannot reject their idea of Koreanness without rejecting them too.
Y/N’s protagonist embarks on an unusual homecoming, a renegotiation of her own Korean heritage through one of its best-known cultural exports. Pursuing Moon to Seoul, she encounters the city through a looking-glass, struggling to penetrate it with her ‘contusive’ grasp of the Korean language. ‘The view had the flatness of a computerised reproduction’, she says, looking out from her high-rise apartment. ‘I had the strange feeling that I could not look out the window, that I could only look at it.’ Instead of tourist spots, she visits locations linked with Moon and ‘the boys’: their favourite restaurant, his former ballet school, and Polygon Plaza, the band’s mysterious corporate headquarters.
Many readers, the majority of them female, will remember boy bands from their childhoods and teenage years. It’s as though we were taught to love by these entities, or, at least, to enact a largely female and tragic form of love, always unrequited, and requiring identifying oneself not as an agent but as a passive consumer. Innocuous, affectionate, forever telling the listener—the girl, the Y/N—that they saw in her something the rest of the world did not, these smooth-skinned, frosted-tipped men were our training wheels for heterosexuality.
Like the disaffected worker staring into an octopus tank, or the dreambound author of fanfiction, many of us long for an escape from reality. In the past we turned to novels for this purpose; now our tech overlords offer social media, virtual reality and the prospect of eventual life on Mars. What’s intriguing about Y/N and Sea Change is that they dramatise this escape with moral ambivalence, asking if it comes at a cost to sanity.
A generation of fanfic creators and consumers have grown up to be writers now. No doubt further generations will follow. What has this preparation for life unleashed? Has fandom stunted us? As writers, or as people? ‘All I required was the freedom to dream about Moon’, says Y/N’s narrator, upon finding a trove of fanfic where her idol is rated the most popular. ‘But his first-place ranking made the disturbing suggestion that my imagination, one of the few remaining places where I felt truly free, was actually the site of my dreariest conformity.’