Esther Yi, Y/N (Astra House), 224 pp. Hardback, $26.00.

The title of Esther Yi’s debut novel isn’t Yes/No; it’s Y/N—the letters “Y” and “N.” Y/N, which stands for “Your Name,” is a subgenre of fanfiction in which the protagonist is labeled “Y/N” so that the reader can insert his or her own name and thus “become” the main character.

In effect then, Y/N is a pronoun. One might argue that the first-person and second-person singular pronouns—“I” and “you”—are just as effective at allowing a reader to identify with a protagonist. And indeed, Yi gives us a first-person narrator who never reveals her own name and thus simply goes by “I”—though at one point she agrees to let another character call her “N.”

The narrator’s managed obsession gives the novel its own odd and interesting aesthetic.

N, as this otherwise nameless narrator might as well be called, is a 29-year-old Korean woman living in Berlin and “working from home as an English copywriter for an Australian expat’s business in canned artichoke hearts.” We are introduced to her in the novel’s opening chapter, which appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of The Paris Review under the title “Moon” and is the strongest section of the book. In a fairly realistic way, the initially resistant N is cajoled by her roommate into attending a K-pop concert to see a group referred to only as “the pack of boys” and clearly modeled after international sensation BTS. The boys are each named after a celestial object, and, against her better judgment, N becomes completely entranced by the 20-year-old Moon as he dances across the stage.

N starts watching all of Moon’s online videos, and then she begins writing her own Y/N fanfiction about him. And when Moon mysteriously drops out of the pack and disappears from public life, N travels to Seoul to try to connect with him. As her obsession intensifies, the novel gets weirder. It eventually becomes difficult to separate the actions of the “real” narrator from those of the fictional Y/N avatar that she creates—who also travels to Seoul to see Moon. “How do I make my love more unusual and more unacceptable?” this avatar wonders.

In Korea, N visits a pyramidal complex called Polygon Plaza, where the famous boys reside. Luckily gifted a golden ticket through an extremely fortuitous new friendship, N enters the complex for a special tour and meets the Music Professor, a Colonel Tom Parker figure who explains that she has designed the building and the band itself as an experiment to limit human individuality in pursuit of universal appeal. For the nameless professor, the “dissolution” or “evacuation of the self in service of a higher purpose” is one’s only “chance at achieving universality.” (More than an echo can be heard of T. S. Eliot’s “impersonal” theory of poetry—that good poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”)

But Moon has left Polygon Plaza, so N tracks him down to the Sanctuary, a retreat run by a woman named the Caregiver. These odd settings and nameless administrators can feel like levels of a video game with their respective bosses, though the narrative here is not combative. By the time one gets into the second half of the novel, the opening sense of realism has disintegrated, and the realm is basically fantasy.

That move can be fun, and some of the twists and turns are amusing. (Moon’s penis, for example, plays a much more significant role than a reader might initially suspect.) But it runs the risk of devolving into moral allegory or preachy philosophy. And at times the novel can feel like a Matrix sequel, or like Everything Everywhere All at Once. It also occasionally winks at the reader in a metafictional way. Early on, another nameless character explains to N that Y/N fanfiction doesn’t work. “In order to accommodate the biography of every reader that might chance upon the story, the writer creates a character void of personality,” he observes. “But there can be no story without a proper protagonist. So there is never a story when it comes to Y/N. There are only absurd and arbitrary leaps in plot.”

Of course, N herself is nearly void of personality—and consciously wants to eradicate what she calls “my pungent individuality.” And her own movements are largely arbitrary, her actions sometimes absurd. Even the novel’s title turns out to have an additional punning dimension: “Why N?” voices a character when reading Y/N fiction aloud. “He seemed to be asking ‘why’ of my existence,” observes N, “‘why’ I was what I was.”

Readers have criticized Yi’s narrator as being snobbish and pretentious, but the novel doesn’t seem to be a takedown of fanfiction or of fan culture. “I don’t see the novel as a cautionary tale,” Yi remarked in an interview. Rather than a warning about the emptiness of people who get swept up in passionate celebrity crushes, this is a much stranger story—a narrative about a deliberate attempt to follow a fantasy in the full knowledge that it is a fantasy.

In its best moments, Y/N reads like a Paul Auster novel. In its worst moments, it reads like, well, fanfiction. The dialogue is quite unusual—sometimes DeLillo-esque—though this is occasionally due to the effect of having Korean speech purportedly translated into English for the reader. “You should have seen my father back in the day,” a girl boasts. “I’m not embarrassed to say that he was taken seriously as a sexual candidate wherever he went.”

Like a piece of fan mail addressed to a young pop star, Y/N can resemble “a strange letter, intimate and characterless at once.” The narrator’s managed obsession gives the novel its own odd and interesting aesthetic.

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