Skip to Content

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our November pick was the Esther Yi novel Y/N which six of us read and five of us riffed on below. Meet us in the comments whenever you're done reading.

Patrick Redford: In a way, the five of us are a version of the Boys, performing here for our audience and attempting to hit novel moves for everyone’s enjoyment. Let’s start with a simple one: How did you like your time with the unnamed narrator and her quest to see what that neck do?

Alex Sujong Laughlin: Jesus.

Giri Nathan: What that neck triumphantly culminate in? Or pass a mystical blue spirit into?

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I had a very fun time with this—kind of repulsive? But a banger?

Kelsey McKinney: Like our unnamed narrator, I was very skeptical of the boys and the story and the tone going in, but it is important to admit when you are wrong. And within 50 pages, I knew I had been very, very wrong. I loved reading this! 

PR: Repulsive and a banger really strikes me as correct here. There’s a loving idiosyncracy to the story and its language that I liked more and more as the story got weirder and weirder. "She wants to hand her mind a butcher's knife with which to hack away every weak and convenient thought. She also wants to risk the greatest possible confusion." That’s A) a bar, and B) a sort of manifesto for the book to me. To let yourself be pulverized by Moon (the idea of Moon? Also, art, generally?) is to give in to unknowability and unknowing.

GN: There are some perfect sentences in here. She was really going for it, on the level of the sentence, for two-hundred-whatever pages straight. It didn’t always work for me—at its worst it kind of read like a critical theory text translated into another language and then back into English—but the successes were vivid enough to justify the approach.

KM: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week because of this blog that you shared, Patrick, is the lack of style in modern fiction. So many novels right now have a kind of "deranged" narrator who is actually just a sad girl, where in this novel the narrator may actually be losing her mind. I found it very admirable and interesting that Yi was able to make her delusions feel real and keep the sentences beautiful. I felt there were hiccups to this at points, but at least it wasn’t boring to read! 

ASL: Definitely. From the midpoint onward I felt like I was in a fever dream every time I sat down to read, and what made it feel so hazy was the clarity with which Yi rendered the departures from reality. It felt like the most haunting part of losing your mind, where you feel completely clear headed throughout. 

PR: At one point, the book just kinda says it. "For all the lone superiority suggested by their tone of moral indignation, these books were mind-numbingly easy to agree with. I preferred reading fans and dead people because they were hard to agree with." That could be Olivia Kan-Sperling or Esther Yi. Why read anything that doesn’t crack your head open like an egg?

MA: I’m glad we chose this book because I’ve sometimes described our website as a website about obsession, and I think that’s the subject of this book also: What is obsession a means to? What does our narrator actually want with Moon? What do our obsessions compensate for?  

KM: One of my favorite things about this book is that the unnamed narrator has a want that is unclear even to her. If desire drives a character, it is so rare to see a desire that is certain only in that a desire exists. What does the narrator want with Moon? That’s a question for her, but also one she will not be answering. 

ASL: In one of those "is this critical theory or a novel" moments, Masterson says "Religion is no longer a site of our interminable struggle with negativity. Religion, shorn of philosophy, is now a vending machine for manifestation and fulfillment." Reading this made me think a lot about how deeply invested people are in their fandoms for their own personal reasons. The one I’m closest to is the Taylor Swift fandom, and the types of conversations that happen on Reddit about her personal life, especially, feel so deeply about each individual rather than the idol (or god?) at the center of the fandom.

MA: And the narrator kind of resists that attempt at intellectualization, right? "Moon can’t be researched," she snaps, when Masterson says he wants to study him. It’s important to her that this relationship be singular and unknowable. Later, she’s also bummed to see that Moon is the most written-about character on the fanfiction website; "my imagination, one of the few remaining places where I felt truly free, was actually the site of my dreariest conformity."

ASL: She rebuffs him and then adds a deeply irrational statement, that they’re talking later that night (she’ll be tuning into an IG Live from him). I couldn’t figure out what the novel’s stance was on whether you can or should intellectualize the object of obsession. 

PR: I was struck by this idea of obsession for obsession’s stake, that aspiring for something that is fundamentally impossible, that doesn’t exist, is more profound than any other possible experience. To the degree that Moon is a real person, his humanity is always undercut by that impossible neck, by his Annihilation-style dance moves. The exaltedness that makes something impossible makes it worth yearning for, because she’s really yearning for something more abstract. "She can never have it; that's why she loves it; she loves what she cannot have; but she will die if she cannot have this thing that she loves not being able to have." Bars! Found suffering in desire; likely place for it to be.

KM: But the desire is for herself! I think perhaps the most accurate thing that this book does is display the experience of fandom as something that is actually about the fan. Moon does not really matter. Moon isn’t really important here. What is important is what she feels, what he is capable of making her feel. Not to jump ahead here, but I loved that when she finally does get to interact with him, she doesn’t have any questions for him, or any interest really in who he is. She wants him to see her, to confirm that she’s real. 

PR: Barry, who is too busy to be here with us despite reading the book, was a big fan of the Polygon Plaza segment, as was I, and I think we should probably at some point talk about the things that happen in the book. What did you all make of the point at which the fanfic merged with the narrative and things got low-key spooky, basically when they went to Polygon Plaza? The Music Professor was such a singular character to me, I could have spent so much more time with her.

GN: I really loved Polygon Plaza itself. I got some Willy Wonka factory tour feelings from it. Also some Zordon and the Power Rangers, when we hear from the Music Professor. I could’ve spent another chapter there, but I also understand that we had to putter around in dream logic at several more disorienting destinations.

ASL: I thought the merging of the main narrative and the fanfic was so exciting, especially because the narrator is unnamed. Once the concept of Y/N narratives was introduced, I was like Hell yeah, we’re in the fic. Entering the Polygon Plaza section, I kept thinking of a line from earlier in the book: "Literature murders—not the reader, as one might expect, but the characters, who are no different from real people." The image in my mind of the narrator’s relationship with Moon felt like one of a fanatic pinning a beautiful butterfly into a frame so they could admire it. It’s a grotesque, violent obsession that precludes reciprocation. 

GN: Do any of you have substantial experience with fanfic? The extent of my knowledge is reading some pretty terrible Halo fanfic written by acquaintances as a preteen. This whole world, and its stylistic norms, are new to me, and I liked the (warped) glimpses of it you get through this book.

PR: Maybe my first experience should be the Master Chief slashfic, because I haven’t read any myself. This book didn’t exactly make me want to start, but I enjoyed the meta-fanfic; fanficfic, if you will.

ASL: I wrote a single Harry Potter fanfic on paper when I was in elementary school, before I knew it was A Thing. I never really got into the online community of it all, but I feel like I’ve been adjacent to those spaces on Tumblr and TikTok. I was struck by how different the depiction of K-pop fan psychology felt in the novel compared to the way I feel like it’s generally perceived by outsiders. My impression, as an outsider, is that K-pop fandoms are sweet and joyful – there’s an innocence to them that is completely gone in this version of fandom. It’s both an innocence to sexual desire and also the more consumptive desire that we were talking about before. Anyway, made me wonder if Yi is BTS Army.

KM: I considered pleading the fifth to this question, but instead, I will be very brave. I have read quite a lot of fanfic in my life. But I’m not sure that it enhanced my reading of this book at all. I do think that most fandoms in general have a lot of divisions within them and a lot of chaos moments. I think as an author Yi made a smart decision focusing so squarely on one character that really doesn’t engage in the fandom or care about it. For her, it isn’t about a sense of community, or engaging with the music of The Boys. 

MA: That’s a great point. This obsession, as the narrator experiences it, is pretty lonely. 

GN: One thing that’s sort of interesting to me about fanfic is the way it works differently from conventional literature that doesn’t assume a specific knowledge base. Fanfic often functions as a wish-fulfillment engine, a supplemental exploration of things that its readers have agreed are important. It would be baffling and meaningless without this outside world of referents. Its meaning is established by this communal knowledge. But then this book has us read fanfic under extreme conditions: What if I introduced a character as an object of obsession, only poetically and abstractly described him as a person, only briefly described the rest of the community that was obsessed with him, and then drilled deep down into the solitary experience of believing that he was really, really important?

PR: That’s a fascinating gambit, isn’t it? The narrator’s mode of obsession is via language, which she reveres for its ability to both link and obfuscate, often at the same time. In the fic itself, there’s a point where both parties are speaking in their non-native languages to level the playing field of poetic confusion. The fic version of Moon is also a philosopher and author, essentially someone responsible for diagnosing and metabolizing novel, abstract truths through language, which is established as somewhat impossible. I don’t have a take here other than: And that’s beautiful.

KM: Right! I think one of my favorite moments in the novel is when she tries to seek help from some kind of psychiatrist, because she knows not that her obsession is unearned but that Moon’s retirement will be difficult for her. And she talks to this dumbass Dr. Fishwife, who tells her, "Your personal history does indicate a high risk of falling prey to another kind of unattainable love object: the literary protagonist who commits unusual acts of willpower frequently to his own detriment. Keep working with me, and I can teach you to read novels like a women’s studies professor instead of a strange dreamy child." Something about this little phrase "like a women’s studies professor instead of a strange dreamy child" feels so important to this book. This is a book for a strange dreamy child! About a strange dreamy child! That is not something the protagonist is seeking to rid herself of. The childlike obsession is the point. 

PR: Who wouldn’t want to be a strange dreamy child, that sounds cool.

ASL: That moment when she exits the video call before he’s done speaking was my favorite in the whole book. I laughed out loud. Like, Oh, you don’t think I’m deranged enough???? I’ll show you deranged!!!!

KM: Yeah! Her decision to fly to try to find Moon is completely irrational, but there’s a kind of recurring theme in this book that things that seem impossible may just stop being impossible if you want them enough. Like the fact that she meets this rando girl O on the street because her shoes are the same ones made at the factory where O works, and then O is the one who guides her to Moon is all kind of like a fever dream. 

PR: I was really into O and her paintings and the cicadas. Here we have the narrator, obsessed with obsession and with Moon, being guided by someone about whom she says, "We decided to be around each other a lot until one of us stabbed the other in the back." If there was any stabbing of anyone in the back it was O winning the lottery and letting the narrator assume her identity, allowing her for the first time to take a name and become real so she could then meet Moon. O’s painting of the back of the narrator’s knee, and the way she talked about her art, struck me as a neat inversion of the narrator’s all-consuming desire/quest. It’s enough to know and reflect one perfect detail; you don’t need to be consumed by anything in totality. What did you all make of that sequence and O as a character/device?

ASL: As a Korean American, I couldn’t help but read the narrator’s experience in Seoul through the lens of my own experience. I’m mixed, so unfortunately there’s no real chance of me blending into Korean Koreans in Seoul, but in a smaller sense I have had the experience of existing as an "other" in the U.S. and going to Korea with an expectation that I will fit. Then, when you get there, you don’t fit in a completely different way. There was one moment early on when O made a comment about the narrator’s accent that felt so familiar to that. I saw O as a sort of blended sister/friend/love interest/mother type of figure for this narrator, someone who reflects her existence back to her in a way that makes her real—even to the point of lending her her name. The painting felt like another version of pinning an object of desire/obsession down to a pinboard to place under glass once it’s dead. 

KM: I loved the back of the knee as a choice here because it kind of looks like a neck. The back of your knee is so smooth and so foreign to you in the same way that you cannot see your own neck and are not very aware of it. 

GN: I really liked the conceit of the back of the knee as someone else’s object of obsession—this part of your body you can’t really see as others do. "[O] was busy dabbling the back of my knee with a wet tissue. So much closer was she to this part of my body than I was that the two of them appeared to be in collusion against me." After all these rhapsodic passages about specific bits of Moon-flesh, our narrator gets put under the microscope herself. We also see the limits of such granular, anatomical obsession: When she is finally alone with Moon, all she can think to do is take refuge in his neck, and then she runs out of ideas. And he hits her in the head with a rotary phone.

PR: I thought the part where she finally meets Moon was really well done; of course it was going to be different, of course he was going to pace around in a secret room above her, of course he was going to be smooching that other lady. 

MA: The "I wish you were Moon" confrontation! You’re right—it couldn’t have ended any other way.

PR: Speaking of endings … I found the final part of this book perfectly unsettling. We haven’t really talked about the cicadas, though they were the subject of one of my favorite passages, when O was talking about her art. "There's the droning of the cicadas, as a technical phenomenon of sound waves. Then there's the mystery of the noise, its vehement formlessness. Neither of those things can be painted. I paint what lies in between. When I paint, I am saying yes to something can be neither agreed nor disagreed with." She’s getting at something quite beautiful about the power of art and language to express the inexpressible, to put voice to some profound alien sensation but do so in a way that doesn't explain, only channels something primordial, inexplicable and refracts it back to you, which, contrasted with the narrator’s fiction, is a nice, subtle rejoinder. The narrator going back to O’s house as the cicadas are being obliterated and then joining them, expecting sirens and hearing the cries of children felt to me like the completion of her self-deconstruction. Your teeth will be white, your tongue will be black, but at least someone will have immortalized the back of your knee in loving, exquisite detail.

KM: The droning of the cicadas, though, is also because of O’s mother, who has lost her hearing quite suddenly. This woman is a kind of specter over the narrator and O’s relationship, but she is searching for a feeling. She wants to hear again, and because she cannot, the cries of the cicadas is a way that she tried to bring herself back into the world. I saw it as a kind of metaphor for the narrator’s experience with Moon more generally. In that she used Moon for a similar purpose: to try and find something in this world to grab onto that would make her feel alive and herself and present. It doesn’t work, though, in the end. 

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this book, don’t worry! We’ll announce our next pick soon.

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter