There is turbulence in the terrain of memory in Jinwoo Chong’s debut novel, Flux (Melville House, 2023), where the reader is confronted with remnants of grief. Through a genre-defying lens, we meet Brandon, Bo, and Blue: three characters grappling with the weight of their own individual trauma. Eight-year-old Bo has just lost his mother and finds solace in a 1980s detective series. Brandon, twenty-eight years old, finds himself perpetually disoriented as he navigates a job at a high-profile energy company, unable to connect to the people closest to him. Blue, forty-eight years old, is seated in the landscape of his own loss, confronted by ruminations. Pacing the speculative prose, Chong centers his characters in the layered mysteries of scandal, conspiracy, and lofty ambition. As these three characters intertwine—unlocking their versions of truth—he captures the complexities of what it means to be human. Brandon, Bo, and Blue struggle with their sense of being, unknown even to themselves.
A meditation on identity, family, and the enduring power of love, Flux is a novel that strips the borders of reality. It reminds us of our ability to shapeshift, to connect, to find meaning in untethered chaos—and to preserve what has been lost.
Flux was named a best book of 2023 by Esquire, Apple Books, Cosmopolitan, Goodreads, Powell’s, and Debutiful. Chong has previously written for The Southern Review, The Rumpus, LitHub, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Electric Literature. In 2022, he received the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Fiction from The Southern Review and a special mention in the 2022 Pushcart Prize anthology. His second novel, I Leave It Up to You, is forthcoming from Ballantine.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Chong over Zoom in early June. We discussed the deconstruction of genre, parasocial relationships, the immigrant inheritance, executing a major plot twist (spoilers abound below), and more.
The Rumpus: What compelled me most about the novel was how skillfully you transcend genre. The story is dense with plot and character, cohesive, but never linear, and you so richly weave together a world rooted in multiple timelines. What was the process of story-building for you?
Jinwoo Chong: I think I sort of chafe at books that are really literary. I tend to feel like I don’t get them, or that they’re too confusing. I’m very plot-driven, and I respond well to plot. A lot of the very literary books out there, particularly the ones that are in that specific genre, don’t speak very much to me. I’ve always wanted to write plot-driven novels that borrow from a lot of different traditions and institutions. That’s something I like most to read, and whenever I write something, I try to write something that I enjoy reading too.
I read a nonfiction book published in 2016 called Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, the journalist who exposed Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scam. That was the first book to come out following her downfall that really picked apart what made her so captivating and why she was able to hoodwink so many different people and a lot of really intelligent institutions and companies. That was so interesting to me. The scam story is so popular now, something that captures attention all the time. I wanted to do something like that. I bent it a little toward the speculative and science fiction because it felt more natural to do that. The language of Silicon Valley and business and venture capital and technology is so unreal to begin with that it flowed naturally through that. I was writing the book during my MFA, and I was getting a lot of conflicting and constructive (and some not constructive) feedback in workshop. I feel like whenever you put something into workshop, it becomes a lot more complicated and messy than it would have been had you just worked on it alone, which is a great thing. The workshop at Columbia helped this book become so much more intricate than it would have been otherwise.
Rumpus: In Io, the enigmatic founder of tech start-up Flux, we have a character who is so reminiscent of Holmes, concealed yet fully defined. Her mission to create innovative, high-powered batteries is soon scrutinized when Flux’s sinister innerworkings are exposed. Io establishes a near cult-celebrity in the aftermath of scandal. So much of the novel delves into our culture’s parasocial relationship with celebrity and the inability to reconcile with truth in order to maintain our idolized version of a person. What was this like for you?
Chong: She was so interesting to work with. I’m disappointed by the real-world examples that I pulled from to create her, because when you take away all the lighting and the shadows, all the hype around these figures, they’re always disappointing. In my opinion, Elon Musk is an idiot. Elizabeth Holmes is kind of an idiot. All of these people have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s all just built up on nothing. I didn’t want to do that for Io. I felt that it was just cruel to the character, and I do think that she’s smart, and she is aware of the way that she comes off to people, the way that people and the media naturally sexualize her as a woman. She’s aware of it all, and she uses it to her advantage. She’s also aware of what Flux really is and what the larger interlocking mysteries are around it. She knows what is going on. I never wanted her to seem helpless, like someone who couldn’t control what was going on around them, as is often the case in real-world examples. That was something I tried to do to make the reader sympathize with her a bit more. I didn’t want her to be one-note.
Rumpus: Raider, the detective series that resonates at every stage in Brandon’s life, dilutes his trauma, making it more manageable. In a similar way, the protagonist—“Jacket Guy”—becomes the talisman to wield away the grief he feels for his mother. At a certain point, these worlds blur the bridge between reality and fiction. What was it like to write a fictional world in fiction and to remind us of the relief that fiction brings us?
Chong: It’s so interesting the way that people create a version of something they see in real life, and it becomes their own personal version of that thing, often in very dangerous ways. It becomes so different from reality. Your idea of someone can grow into something that is not like who the person really is at all, and I feel like this happens all the time in the parasocial relationships that fans have. The most present one feels like Taylor Swift. The version of Taylor Swift that exists in people’s minds, especially to those hardcore fans, is so warped from who she really is. It’s scary when those things manifest and people reveal what they actually think. This happens to Brandon, of course, in the way that he comes to view Raider as a father figure. It alienates him from his actual family—it’s the one thing that brings him comfort, more so than his own father. Something you hold so dear then becomes tarnished in the real world. What happens to Raider is that the actor who plays him gets embroiled in a large sexual abuse scandal, and Brandon has no idea how to cope with it. It’s shattered his sense of security. We see this happen often in real life through varying extents. I had a lot of fun thinking about it in terms of Brandon’s arc and imagining the ways that he would react.
Rumpus: I want to know more about what it means to occupy multiple identities in the same body, unable to remove shame. How did Brandon, Bo, and Blue evolve for you?
Chong: I had to do some work to really differentiate the three. I wanted it to be very clear that we were working with three different people at first because I was working toward the moment in which things come together and you realize that they are the same person. I wanted that moment to have more heft. I tried to identify each as independently as I could, and giving them different names was certainly one of them. In the three time zones, everyone has slightly different names; everyone thinks in different ways and is referred to in different ways using various epithets and other nicknames. I loved doing that to create three different worlds. It automatically and naturally ties back to the focal point, which is the loss of Brandon’s mother and how this grief transforms him over time. I think I was hoping to draw a picture of a life of someone who experiences something so traumatic early on, and it turns them into different people as they grow older. Brandon deals with that pain in really different ways at different ages.
When he’s a kid, he does something that I think children do, and that’s to reach out to people and beg for recognition. To be validated, for someone to recognize the pain inside. He’s reaching out for somebody to do that, and nobody really does. When Brandon is twenty-eight, a lot of that hopefulness has burned away; he feels like the only thing to really help him is to push everybody to the outer rims of life. He never lets anybody in, which feels very natural for someone in their twenties who is trying to figure things out. Then we get to Blue, who is forty-eight, and regret rules his life. He is constantly thinking of what he’s done and what he could have done differently. He lives in the past, so much so that he doesn’t even exist in the present. That felt natural as well for someone who is holding on to guilt from decades ago—it felt like a natural thing to happen. I don’t think it was fun to do, but it was a nice exercise in figuring out how pain can shape someone over time, and how it can transform a person.
Rumpus: Brandon’s relationships are tenuous, connected to this grief, and reveal different forms of grief, joy, and lightness. It can be tricky to strike that balance with families, even found families. How did you craft them so authentically?
Chong: I try not to mime my own life for stuff I’m working on because it ends up being too personal and too painful—I see too much of myself in it—and it isn’t fiction anymore. I tried to make Brandon’s family life different, and certainly his relationships are different from what I know about my own life. I think the main thing that I was trying to strike in every interaction that he has with people is this sort of guardedness that he has, shaped by everything we were talking about before. This gets punctured only a few times over the course of the book. Those moments are my favorite ones, because you see him for what he actually is. The one that I hold dear in my heart is when he’s talking to the prostitute, the call-boy, Kodi. They’re in bed together, and Brandon is the most honest he’s ever been in his life. He’s not even that honest with his family. Those pinpoints of honesty were something that felt very real, of someone who was working with all of that pain. I feel like that mimics the way that people who are carrying around a lot of trauma in their lives associate with other people. It’s very hands-off, it’s very guarded. And those moments of vulnerability are very scary. They’re painful, they’re brief, but they are beautiful when they happen. I was trying to emulate some of them.
Rumpus: There are those vulnerable moments that are very tense, fueled with shame, or embarrassment, including one after Brandon and Min have slept together. It’s revealed that he’s read a very personal letter of hers. That moment was so uncomfortable to read, but that was what made it so poignant: it’s real life. How did you write scenes like this without flinching from the terrible reality?
Chong: I was thinking about the first story in A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, about the kleptomaniac who goes home with a guy and steals his wallet. She sees a really personal handwritten note in the wallet, and it says, “I believe in you.” It makes her sick because she’s intruded on this and defiled his security. We end up with that character, Alex, at the end of the book, and he doesn’t even remember it, or what the note was for. I thought that was incredible. That was one thing I was thinking about when Brandon finds Min’s note, to really encapsulate the shame he feels. I think it was done so well in that story, and it was one of the first stories I ever read—I think I was fifteen years old. It’s always stuck with me.
Rumpus: Brandon feels a disconnect from his Korean identity, but there is a protectiveness too. I think this illustrates so well the internal conflict that can occur when we occupy those parts of ourselves that feel othered or othering.
Chong: I do think that our sense of self—our cultural identity, ethnic identity, religious identity—flows in a very direct path from our parents. I was trying to imagine what would happen if that path was cleanly severed.
Brandon loses his mother very early on, and I tried to strike a really stark difference between the Brandon we see as a child, who speaks Korean and calls his parents the Korean names for parents, to what he becomes: someone who can’t really speak the language anymore. When he goes to the Korean restaurant with Min, he feels so out of place there, even though that is his heritage. He feels distant from it because he doesn’t have the source of it anymore. His mother is gone. I was trying to imagine that, and to try and link it to how I feel about my own Korean heritage and the ways that my attitude toward it has changed as I’ve grown up. I used to feel quite resentful. I wished that I were white in so many ways. Now I feel a lot more at peace with it, but it’s still a source of stress, and in-betweenness, like an otherness, as you said.
Asian Americans—or anyone who identifies with their ancestral origins, race, or ethnicity, really—all share that, especially when their parents were the immigrants, or their parents were the ones safeguarding their cultural heritage. Now it’s been passed on in a flawed way, or in an incomplete way to their children. It’s not a good feeling. It’s also quite stressful, and there’s a lot of guilt involved. Children who become Americanized way more than their parents feel guilty that they didn’t do more to carry it on. That’s something that I certainly feel. It’s interesting that Brandon doesn’t really feel guilt. It felt almost purposeful that he rejected that part of himself, to cope with the pain of it. He didn’t want it to be a part of himself anymore. He consciously chose to identify as more white than he was.
Rumpus: What are you currently reading? What are you working on next?
Chong: There is a book that recently came out called Tropicália by Harold Rogers. I knew Harold at Columbia—we were in the same workshop—and he submitted the first few chapters of this novel for the first workshop. I remember thinking, “This is going to get published.” He actually did an event with me in July. It’s wonderful to see how the initial draft has changed and become the final version. It’s really cool. He’s such a talented writer.
My second book is a lot more joyous. I wrote it during the pandemic as a way for myself to feel happy about writing again, which I had fallen out of love with a little bit. I wrote it for that reason, and it ended up being a lot happier and funnier than I thought it would be if I hadn’t written it under those circumstances. It’s also pretty autobiographical. It’s about a Korean American son who reconnects with his very dysfunctional family. My family is not as dysfunctional, but there are certainly the roots of it there.
Author photograph by Enushé Khan