She Dropped Everything to Meet the K-Pop Star of Her Fantasies

Y/N, by Esther Yi

“We’re more popular than Jesus,” John Lennon infamously said of the Beatles. As houses of worship shut down in droves while pop music fandom grows ever more extreme, it seems unfair anew that he got such a drubbing.

“We no longer go to church once a week; we attend a stadium concert once a year,” declares Masterson, one of several minor characters given excellent Dickensian names in Esther Yi’s wondrous and strange first novel, “Y/N.” It’s a short book — just over 200 pages — but with big themes, like the precarity of love, and how the modern self is forged less in community than mass consumption.

Though he’s oblivious to its implications, Masterson has just discovered evidence that his sort-of girlfriend, an anonymous narrator, has become obsessed with the youngest member of a Korean boy band. The star is called, with an inevitable echo of the Unification Church founder, Moon. His oldest bandmate is Sun, of course, with Jupiter, Mercuryand Venus rounding out the quintet. “There are so many lowercase gods in this secular, cynical era,”Masterson pontificates, waxing on about how philosophy has been supplanted by data, religion has become “a vending machine for manifestation and fulfillment,” and so on. Many of us have dated a Masterson.

“Y/N” refers not to yes/no, as Moon will assume, but to the practice in fan fiction of leaving a space for Your/Name, so that readers can Mad Lib themselves into the narrative. But this abbreviation, too, has extra resonance. “He seemed to be asking ‘why’ of my existence,” the narrator thinks when Moon reads aloud the first letter in the elaborate fanfic she’s written for him. “‘Why’ I was what I was.”

When another supporting character, who manufactures shoe soles and goes by O (shades of the erotic classic published under the pen name Pauline Réage), asks the narrator what letter she’d like to be, she chooses N, reasoning that “the two prongs of M perfectly captured Moon’s bipedal stability” — he’s an exceptional dancer, with a background in ballet — and she is comparatively “doddering.”

Swirling around in this alphabet soup of identity is the idea that a parasocial relationship might be as fulfilling as, or anyway no less delusional than, traditional monogamy. Reading the narrator’s obsessive Moon ruminations, I remembered more than once the weird intensity of Jerry Maguire’s line “you complete me.” During a livestream, she imagines another fan, a vegan, actually wishing to be “masticated by Moon.”

What we learn about this unnamed narrator — let’s call her U.N. — is delightful in its specificity. A Korean American living in Berlin, she works as a copywriter for a canned-artichoke-heart business. “I don’t want my life to change,” she tells the flatmate she met online, who’s proselytizing for the band, “I want my life to stay in one place and be one thing as intensely as possible.” But though leery of fandom, she falls hard and fast after one concert. Not for nothing is fame now near-synonymous with “virality”; to be struck by its power is indeed a kind of sickness.

Troubled by the news that Moon is retiring, U.N. consults on Zoom with a therapist in Los Angeles named Dr. Fishwife. “The best way to fall out of love,” he advises her, “is to realize there exists no love out of which to fall.” (“Y/N” is packed like a can of artichoke hearts with such useful epigrams.) Undaunted, she books a one-way ticket to Seoul, where she has an uncle, to track down and confront the object of her obsession, staying in an apartment building whose first floor contains, and this rings all too true, “a coffee shop where one could sit, and a coffee shop where one could not sit.”

There’s also a pilgrimage to the Polygon Plaza, HQ of the entertainment company that masterminded the boy band, where a Music Professor, the president, does a bit of waxing herself about how “people were running around in circles and indulging their small adorable freedoms, like wearing this or that outfit or sleeping with this or that person. They confused their navigation through the stunning variety of meaningless choices as an expression of their individuality.” It’s a stinging indictment of what it’s become fashionable to call “late capitalism,” as if anyone had an idea of its endpoint.

The main pleasure of “Y/N” is not so much its somewhat skeletal plot, which floats in and out of surreality like an adult “Phantom Tollbooth,” as its corkscrew turns of language (also Tollboothian). I loved how Yi animates objects and reduces humans to collections of cells. The celestial group refers to its fans as “livers” — maybe because it sounds like “lovers,” but more because “we kept them alive,” the narrator notes, “like critical organs.”

Shelves of books snake through a dark library “in a disorderly line, not unlike intestines.” Electronic door locks emit “smug beeps.” Cosmetic sheet masks, a 30-day skin regimen packaged with images of the boy band, stay on way longer than they should. “In a month, my dead skin cells will fall away, and I’ll be left with the juicier cells underneath,” U.N. states flatly. “Then I’ll be closer to who I really am.”(This is how Sephora makes billions.)

In real life, K-pop fans are a sprawling entity, bigger and more online than Gaga’s Monsters or Beyoncé’s Hive: “armies” that have increasingly made incursions into politics and faced government censure. In its clever compactness, “Y/N” resists the junkiness of the internet where they reside, the fanfics and the livestreams and endless comments.

All that writing, that global “content,” is now so ubiquitous, so endless, so cheap — ChatGPT, bonjour — it comes to seem like a toxic cloud, against which a well-formed novel like this counteracts, a blast of cleansing heat.

Y/N | By Esther Yi | 224 pp. | Astra House | $26

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