Flux, a stunning debut novel by Jinwoo Chong, is all about the feeling of being disoriented. It starts with a bit of a misleading marketing premise. At the center of its story is 28-year-old Brandon, who, in his aimlessness after being laid off, takes on a job with Flux, a mysterious organization that promises to the world the secret to infinite renewable energy. Intertwined with his perspective is that of Bo and Blue; the former is a child processing recent tragedy, the latter is a middle-aged man reflecting on his life as he attempts to reconnect with his family while closing out loose ends from his past.
A cursory read of the marketing on the jacket text promises the story of a man whose suspects his company has used their discovery of time travel for unsavory reasons. And while elements of this premise exist, Flux truly comes down to this: a profoundly moving story about grief, and a first-person account about surviving in the hyper-capitalistic world of today.
Easily appreciated is the depth Chong has put into anchoring the protagonist Brandon as the heart of the story. As someone who straddles different cultural identities, his listlessness is deeply felt, as is his yearning to make sense of the loss he’s experienced in life. When the opportunity to join Flux arrives, he takes it, not fully understanding what he’s agreeing to in exchange for the promise of steady employment. His desperation, apathy, yearning, detachment — all come across as an honest depiction of a deeply conflicted worker at the crossroads of the worlds he has found himself in.
Flux is heavily experimental. It jumps between multiple timelines, and a good portion of it is dedicated to Brandon’s monologues to Raider, a fictional character from an ‘80s detective show that Brandon grew heavily attached to as a child. The novel itself jumps across many topics: climate change; the nature of art detached from its creators; racial and sexual identity; and, above all, the ways grief inhabits us and stays for life. Sometimes, Flux feels like it’s biting off more than it can chew given the expansiveness even just one of these topics can occupy space in the story. However, the overall package is an admirable ode to life’s messiness.
Given the elements of time travel that Brandon suspects his employers are up to, one particular passage that plays heavily with the linearity of its scenes makes for the most memorable memory of my time reading this story. All told in first-person perspective, readers will feel how bewildering it is to be Brandon in the center of it all, as temporal stability and an understanding of self lose all meaning.
Other impressionable moments from the novel delve quickly into spoiler territory if further explained, but what I will say is that Chong’s writing excels best whenever he manipulates story conventions regarding perspective.
Flux soars when it puts its trust into its protagonist to think as any real human would — unreliable. At times Brandon is forthright, other times he’s reserved and keeps information to himself, lest it spills out before he’s ready to comprehend the meaning of it. Finishing this story felt like coming out of a dark room, the truth of its disconcerting story laid bare only in retrospect.
As with many novels that reflect on the ennui of modern life, one thing I was apprehensive about upon getting into this story was whether Flux was willing to do more with its themes after touching on them at the surface level. As I continued reading, it became clear that Chong knows how to boldly blend the boundaries of genres. His ability to intertwine profound contemplations on life with the weirdness of the story’s science fiction elements made for a highly refreshing read.
In the end, Flux will likely make for an immensely rewarding read for an audience open to receiving its genre-defying story. For those who prefer stories that don’t throw constant curveballs, it will confuse, and maybe disappoint. Have the patience to wade through the chaos, though, and Flux will surely enlighten.