[Coffee House Press; 2021]

On October 1st, Twitter lit up with the news that 23 species had been removed from the endangered species list because they had gone extinct. It felt like I was in a large room, the susurrus spreading like an oil spill. Speaking of which, the latest oil spill off the coast of California — tonnes of oil pumped into the water, flowing into the veins of fish and the holdfasts of kelp forests: each gallon suggested a loss somewhere up the food chain. That’s the problem, Eugene Lim’s narrator announces in Search History: “the losing and the loss. Now it’s trying not to die so much every day, to not have the dying happen around me so much, to not see the dying even in that which is coming to life, to not be crushed every moment by the loss the loss the loss.” It’s not just dying things that constitute this loss, but also the loss of stability, the precarity of labor and categories, and even shared realities. The book makes an object lesson of this: early on, two characters are conversing about a dog. The dog reveals that while identity is a social and individual construction, it is important because “most people construct their lives around it,” and though there is no absolute self, there are many relative selves. Another character overhears this conversation and realizes immediately that it is the reincarnation of his deceased friend, Frank Exit. Or at least, that it might be.

Lim’s novel, published earlier this year by Coffee House Press, proceeds by this logic, one that promises the disorientation of a house of mirrors. Some books aim to catalog their themes — to provide an accounting of the extent of loss or pain. This is useful in the cases where the existence of a thing remains contested; Claudia Rankine’s Citizen does this for the kinds of antiblack injustices suffered by a well-to-do Black person. But we do not need such a catalog — it would take no more than to watch the news or check the weather to understand the scope of our ongoing losses. Lim’s goal is more ambitious: not to be a cataloguer but to ask what genre of grief could ever serve as an adequate response. What language or gesture can respond to the scale of this loss? To its senselessness?

An answer: one character, Muriel, decides to create a cassette tape of Frank Exit’s voicemails to her. A cassette? Search History is contemporary, but it is the magic of a cassette tape that it would be virtually unplayable “because then the cassette would become only a totem, some kind of emanating if impractical object.” In the process of creating this charm, Muriel listens to a smattering of the voice messages and the reader sits in on it. It’s banal, of course — everyday speech is, definitionally. It’s also moving, to hear one friend constantly miss another, moments of woundedness seeping through as the messages continue to pile up. The creation of such a cassette speaks to the double bind of the prospective project of responding to loss — Muriel seeks to listen and witness, but also to create something that cannot be heard again. Listening to the voicemails is not a project of recovery, but a project of agential letting go. “Abandon what abandons you/And see what is left,” writes the Albanian poet Pir Iqbal the Impaled. Thus do we leave ghosts to rest.

It is fitting, then, that the dog was not Frank Exit after all. Rather, explains a precocious eleven-year old ambient music DJ named Donna Winters, the dog is a robot endowed with a preternatural artificial intelligence. The AI is programmed to discern human desires, but works too well, eventually learning “to emulate that which you most longed for — a desire perhaps unconscious, secret even from yourself — a desire which in most people turns out to be the recovery of the dead.” Here arrives another answer — the text’s primary narrator, Dave is unable to let go of Frank. His desire to be with Frank is folded and sublimated repeatedly, until it becomes unknowable even to Dave himself, legible only to a robotic dog whose entire intelligence is devoted to satisfying human desire. 

In a 1918 essay called “On Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud suggested that mourning was a normal process in which one developed a way of replacing the love-object — the thing which one has lost. Melancholia, by contrast, was a pathological process in which one could not let go — the melancholic remains psychically attached to the love-object and unable to “move on” by replacing the love-object. In a later essay, Freud admitted that it was perhaps not pathological to be melancholic. Picking up this thread, Judith Butler suggested that melancholia may in fact be a reasonable and healthy response to the irreplaceability of our most cherished friends and lovers. Dave finds himself caught in the space between these two responses: recounting his experiences, playing a kind of meditative video game and “inhabiting” objects with Frank. Dave admits: “I think of the experience as a crucial part of my sense of self. Which I guess is why I’m so bereft. Since Frank’s death I haven’t even tried. I can’t. I haven’t even ingested a drug or looked at a gaming rig. I miss him too much. I realize I can’t do it.” Is it any more contemptible to linger on the loss and admit the impossibility of repair as Dave does? Lim does not seem to think so, though he and his characters may admit that such a loss and its concomitant desire for recovery must be recognized. This is why Dave admits it to Donna Winters. Let us linger on the things we have lost, Lim implies, but let us at least be aware of our attachments. 

It is hard not to feel that this injunction is at least somewhat pointed. We are living, now, at what may be the end of the Anthropocene. The species gone extinct, the fires that swept through California, or the ash cloud it sent across the country — these can portend little else. The scale of loss is immense and its pace relentless. The prospect of recovery or repair, the possibility of reversing climate change, or refugee crises subsequent to that, or civil wars subsequent to that, is long past. Let us instead stand and mourn. Abandon hope of finding answers to the senseless loss. There is no future. For hope, instead let us search history.

Sohum Pal is an independent scholar and writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @sgpal_.

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