Eugene Lim intertwines elegant poetics with a fantastic plot, rife with love, mystery, malaise, and the supernatural

Eugene Lim, Fog & Car (Ellipsis Press, 2008)

"Fog & Car begins as a record of mundane behavior, cataloging the daily schedules and habits of two people now divorced and living in different states. Mr. Fog returns to his childhood hometown in Ohio to become a schoolteacher, while Ms. Car moves to Brooklyn, where she finds work as a freelance copyeditor. Both spend most of their newfound routines reminiscing, reexamining their lives, and reflecting on, if not where things went wrong, then on why things haven't gone right. And for the book's first hundred pages, the protagonists' names are the only signal that anything stranger might occur. In this first half, Lim skillfully captures a sense of the necessary loneliness that ensues following a breakup, demonstrating that he could have written a good but fairly recognizable realist novel. But then, with the introduction of a few more characters, the plot turns weird, and Lim peels relentlessly at his story's realism until it tugs loose, revealing much stranger happenings underneath. At first I held some concern as to whether Lim could pull it all off, but he does so wonderfully, transforming Fog & Car from a potential minimalist navelgazer into a disturbing mystery pitched somewhere between Mulholland Drive and City of Glass. Yet, to Lim's credit, as the novel enters its creepier second half, it never loses its appealing initial tone of aching loneliness, even as its characters and its goings-on grow increasingly supernatural. In another daring move, Lim refuses to answer every question that he raises, but by the final page he achieves a great deal by creating a state of troubled, yet calm, acceptance." - A.D. Jameson

"In this astonishing, assured first novel Eugene Lim intertwines elegant poetics with a fantastic plot, rife with love, mystery, malaise, and the supernatural. His gift for ingenious, startling permutations of language and plot make for a memorable, mesmerizing read. It was hard for me to put Fog and Car down; harder for me to stop thinking about." — Lynn Crawford

"The events of this novel take place in a space contrary to action, illuminating the silences of the page and the nothing that haunts the borders of 'doing something'. A beautifully paced and thoughtful work." — Renee Gladman

"In Fog & Car Eugene Lim scalpels deep into the loneliness of coupledom, into divorce, into obsession and stalking, into casual hookups, into homoerotic shocks. The book slowly heats its duos until they come to a rolling boil, blistering out surprises and unexpected complexities. Mr. Lim is definitely a writer to watch." — Steve Katz

"In Fog & Car, Eugene Lim renders the uncanny convergences of the lives of partners and strangers in a language entirely new. This is a deep, engulfing novel of breathtaking, even spooking precision—an altogether heady and heart-shaking debut." — Gary Lutz

"In this debut novel documenting the aftermath of a shattered marriage - its disintegration evident in the artifacts of memory and loss strewn across an abandoned landscape - Eugene Lim doesn’t as much collect and catalogue the fragments of lives shared, as artfully piece them into a puzzle reflective of players whose moves were induced by seemingly inconsequent forces.
Partitioned into four sections - “Mirror,” “Marriage,” “Mirage,” and “Merge” - Fog & Car renders, by way of an anticipation that heightens with every shift in point of view and characterization, an existence that has been shorn into unequal parts - each former-partner charged with navigating an unplanned and perhaps unimpressive future in the image of overwhelming bleakness it offers.
“Mirror” finds Mr. Fog and Ms. Car in separate physical and existential locations. Whereas Fog is left splintered by the loss of what their union signified, Car sees her reflection in the bathroom mirror, kitchen window at night, and the spoon she licks after stirring her coffee, as contorted and often narrow in form, but nonetheless blurry enough to preserve the possibility of eventual reshaping and sharpening. In a narrative as analytical as Fog’s is dissonant, Car’s sight is fixed on a future promising reclamation of the restless spirit that led her around the globe; prior, of course, to the idling proffered by a man whose own sense of wanderlust had long involved looking over a shoulder while attempting to reclaim a time-worn path.
Like a blank page of paper mailed from one ex-spouse to the other, the early image of Fog and Car is a reproduction of the severed ties between his ephemeral shaping and her assured lines. Fog back home in Ohio, Car starting over in New York, they find each other again only in the penmanship of characters whose influence on this once-couple’s relationship may seem minimal, if not altogether unidentifiable.
Whereas Mr. Exit’s presence in Fog’s life was once crucial, Car’s memory labels him a fat man, the embodiment of her aversion to laziness and a lack of control. Consequently, his appearance in a life that is now spent in motion between two ends of a swimming pool lap lane - every strike of an elbow into water propelling her body forward -- is debilitating in its ability to moor Car to a present centered on a run-in with an acquaintance much changed. Tackling the novel’s second section with a precision surgical in nature, Lim peels away the fleshy layer of skin from the wound of divorce, manifesting for the reader the visceral inner-workings of effectual relationships and how they may alter an image that takes shape.
Here Fog finds love with Judy, and Car discovers in the random sighting of a transformed Exit the multiplicity of choices a game’s player can be compelled to make. Dipping her head beneath the chlorinated water’s surface Car discovers alcohol: a propensity responsible for her evolution from passive proofreader to active writer of her own plot. Consequently, it is within Car’s personal cast of characters that Mac comes to life; his homeless, ragged form responsible for the inability to hold a pen confidently in fingers left robbed of memory, his smearing of black desperation across Car’s page an appeal for help. In his resolve to discover his identity, Mac takes to trailing Car, who is tracking Frank Exit. Whereas Fog finds himself bound with Judy in their newly purchased, painted, and decorated house, Car’s unraveling possesses implications that extend far beyond the uncanny or unexpected -- as reflected in Lim’s phenomenal ability to nestle revelatory gems in the corners of his muscular text.
Exit’s entrance induces lives to converge; the meticulous pacing and measured magnetism of this intersection no small feat. Giving way to the third division of the novel, “Mirage,” Fog reaches out to his ex-wife: now an often-inebriated stalker who wrestles with power and memory on a scale that extends far beyond unsigned letters, and deteriorates into illusory pages of crumpled ramblings left strewn about after frantic nights passed without sleep. In his communication, written six months prior to his second wedding, Fog hopes for “Ms. Automobile” to be directing a movie “in some place where they speak a language which [her] mouth can’t shape the sounds of.” His admission that he envies her, years after the collapse of their marriage, is offered, finally, by a man who understands that the past gives way to the future much as a paper boat succumbs to the spreading stain of river water that rises as the flimsy vessel sinks.
Arranged with the eye of an experienced puzzle-solver, the third section of Fog & Car suggests a unification of its edges that will materialize in the coda, yet an ultimate protection of its pieces’ borders that occurs when Lim brings Frank Exit, Mac, and Judy into the forefront of Fog and Car’s reflection. Like a series of concentric circles forming in the air when, with a quick scoop, burning coals are pushed inside a tin can that has attached to it a long piece of twine, the “whooping, dancing in and out of the circle [that] is made out of embers” is really the re-shifting of puzzle pieces; the center is identified and rejected over and again, as each time the shape of the image forming around it isn’t complete and shatters the possibility of depicting for the reader an image of intimate connection that is not only recognizable, but sought after in life relationships - those abandoned, or those reclaimed." - Erin McKnight

"Character names are often the most repeated words in fiction, so authors tend to freight them with allegorical meaning as a matter of efficiency. Christian labors toward the Celestial City in A Pilgrim’s Progress; Moby Dick’s Ishmael travels the ocean much like his biblical namesake wandered Levantine deserts; Beckett’s Watt is perplexed, his Krapp is retentive. The title of Fog & Car, Eugene Lim’s impressive debut novel, refers to Jim Fog and Sarah Car, a newly-divorced couple whose parallel stories compose the opening half of the book. Cars and fog, of course, are not complementary, so the likelihood of a reunion for these two seems dim from the start.
Beyond allegory, these names describe respective styles. In the wake of the divorce, Sarah Car pursues a mechanical oblivion consonant with her name. Grief and bewilderment are subsumed in tasks that require neither feeling nor reflection: she moves; she grouts tiles; she copyedits; she swims. The narration of her activities is correspondingly dry, remote, automated, as though a technical writer had been commissioned to record her every move. “She entered the shower and shampooed her hair. While her hair was sudded, she brushed her teeth. She would habitually spit her paste spittle onto her feet and dumbly watch the shower water sink it away. She soaped after this and rinsed.” Passages like this are near parodies of conventional realist fiction, and from time to time the prose’s enactment of the banal is itself banal. But in the end it is precisely the exaggerated pedantry of the style that allows it to transcend what it describes.
Conversely, Jim Fog wallows in a mist of disordered nostalgia and subject-less, object-less thought. The syntax is muddied, eroded, elliptical, tangential—the formal expression of an interior fog. It’s also some of the loveliest writing in the book, amounting to an extended prose-poem that reveals a sensibility of acute ambivalence and muted anxiety. “A hope for an end, or perhaps just a morbid fascination at the structure without foundation, still standing. Each limb cantilevering another and that in turn another, so that it stands on nothing but itself, an intricate flower that defying gravity, he rips apart to find only an empty center.”
Fog & Car alternates between Car and Fog, establishing a contrapuntal rhythm that incrementally resolves into a lucid, supple prose emblematic of their slow recovery from each other. Ironically, over the course of the novel they become more alike. And just as the reader is settling into what appears to be a subtle, penetrating meditation on contemporary relationships, everything is thrown into disarray by the appearance of a deus ex machina in the form of a third major character. There’s no doubting his ex machina nature; his name is Frank Exit. With his arrival, the novel abruptly swerves from its naturalist mode into surreality.
Fog & Car has the shape of a long turnpike that runs into an urban snarl of on and off ramps. Suddenly every incidental thread of the early, gently-paced narrative knots up into a supernatural tangle of a plot—souls are exchanged, coincidences multiply. But as Frank Exit remarks near the end of the book, “I realized that coincidence was just my generation’s name for magic, and that there is a discovery repeated by each generation, that magic is less extraordinary than it is hidden, and that once discovered, it becomes everywhere apparent.” Here, in a nutshell, is the book’s governing principle: The lack of coincidence in the novel’s first half is meant to illustrate the perceptual failure of both Fog and Car. Once discovered under the surface of incident, coincidence is not merely “everywhere apparent”; it’s inescapable.
Introducing dense plotting halfway through an otherwise plotless novel is an intriguing and daring formal gambit. To defy novelistic conventions is easy enough. The difficulty comes in custom-building new forms for a story, and new stories for these new forms. Suiting the action to the word and the word to the action is no easy feat, but it is one that Lim has achieved with his first tragicomic novel." - Oisin Curran

"Last night I sat down to start reading Eugene Lim's FOG & CAR, the other of the two debut books from Ellipsis Press along with Eugene Marten's WASTE, which I loved and talked about a while back, I hadn't meant to read for very long but found myself unable to stop reading the book. FOG & CAR is a strange amalgam of several ideas, it begins with a dissolved marriage from which both ends begin to branch and splinter and spread back into each other in weird ways. I was surprised to be so captivated by a book about a ruined marriage, which it is only on the surface, what it really is is a puzzle and a book of worming forms, sometimes the tense shifts or lines are layered and/or repeated, there is a lot of subtle innovation, refreshing.
The first section uses these calm and almost Lutz-like renditions of the two divorcees, Fog and Car, trying to smooth their lives out into something, Eugene Lim writes about the cleaning of houses, the method of a swimming routine, and all in this meditative, language-conscious but not overtly languaged and extremely absorbing way, the book also continues to evolve by stretching the forms of the way the words are delivered, but again, in calm and nuanced methods.
In grad school Amy Hempel had us read a Mark Richard story, I can't remember the name of it, I think it is the first one in THE ICE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD, Amy, in perhaps her only 'lecture-like moment' of the workshops talked some about how Richard was able to show the passage of time by using fields and dogs rather than talking about time, and how it opened the language and the feel of the words in this surprising way, I think Eugene Lim's descriptions here worked on me in that way, though rather than over the function of time it was over the function of distancing and grief, so much so that I couldn't stop wanting to propel through it, and I was so pleased to find myself reading a book supposedly about relationships about still feeling completely engrossed, as I hate relationships in books usually, for their wheel-spinning, I think people who get excited about Richard Yates would really enjoy the meditative stancing of the early sections especially.
Then there are two more sections in which Lim continues to open the way the story is built into an almost Paul Auster kind of maze, path-inducing manner, there is following and weird rooms and strange phenomenon that continue to be braided together but left open in other strands.
Here is a sentence from the book that maybe exhibits the balance of strange and familiar sense of both situation and language in FOG & CAR: "He forgot his name and became her bellybutton."
Then, in the last third of the book, which begins to develop into a really strange configuration of earlier elements and a linking of space, I hit a page, a strange development involving a man in an empty room and an elevator, and a little later, further linking, which made me stop and touch the book against my chest. I remember not knowing what to do having read it, it was very late by then and I'd stayed up longer than I meant to, and yet I wanted to keep reading, and yet couldn't the page had stopped me in a way that I felt I needed to think about rather than go on with the rest of the book right there, I went to bed. I could not stop thinking about the book in such a way that I stayed awake for several further hours, and when I finally did sleep I had a dream about writing about the book as I am now, and other dreams branching off from the book. When I woke I walked around for a while and then finished reading.
FOG & CAR is new in familiar ways and familiar in new ways, and altogether a thing that turned my mind on in such a mode that I could not turn it off.
Along with WASTE, if you haven't gotten on board already, both are available from Ellipsis as a package deal. I can't imagine an innovative fiction press with a better introductory one-two punch." - Blake Butler

«If divorce is a totaled car, then Eugene Lim’s Fog & Car is a multiple vehicle pile-up. Huge accidents tend to occur in rain or fog – the low-visibility tricking drivers into thinking other cars are further away than they really are. Throwing everything into darkness, Lim’s novel forces its characters, and the reader, to crane forward, to squint their eyes, to try get their bearings, just to keep from crashing. And all of this happens after an off-stage break-up.
Fog & Car’s chapters tick tock between Jim Fog and his ex-wife Sarah Car dusting themselves from the wreck of their marriage, licking their wounds, trying to make sense of their failures as individuals and as a couple, to redefine who they are outside of each other’s arms. Relationships often dissolve in order to escape boredom, chaos, or to avert some imagined disaster, but just like that car in a fog smashing into another car and that car smashing into another, sometimes a break-up leads to even further chaos and disorder. Mr. Fog and Ms. Car’s divorce leads to deep soul-scouring, mystery, chaos, some kind of redemption for one, and, for the other, dissolution, menacing darkness, and an augured, but still uncertain, end. Their surnames should have signaled that their relationship was doomed from the start, but Lim’s novel cannot be reduced to allegory.
Fog & Car is also about another marriage, namely, form and content. Lim has a poet’s eagle eye for resonant detail, an artist’s eye for symbolic representation. Throughout the novel, he plays with the book as an object, artfully “designing” his characters’ consciousnesses, their fragmentation, their confusion, their emptiness, on the page much like a painter would. Sarah Car, adrift and bereft, spends much of the novel’s first half figuring herself out, exploring things she’d forsaken, and ironically finds an anchor by learning to swim.
She swims with pleasure. The moment just previous to her entrance into the water is one of almost sexual anticipation. She thinks it may be a link to this other place, this relative place, one of body perhaps, except the anticipation seems to be not for any act but a void, or perhaps the body remembers something the mind, not being able to state, does not. In any case the actual swimming is also conscious, efforted, a process of learning. It is complex, in the end, and one which she enjoys participating in. The dive
into the water, the random slush and splish of first movement and then that sounds relaxation into a rhythm of arm and water, distance and turn,
turn and distance, forth
and back.
Lim’s use of paragraph breaks captures Sarah’s movement as much as it slows time down, compelling the reader to take in breaths, falling into Sarah’s rhythm. It’s simply breathtaking. Furthermore, a whole study could me made of how Lim employs ellipses, caesuras, sentence fragmentation, and pages of white space.
But Fog & Car is no lifeless formalist exercise. Every word serves greater concerns, that is, attempting to define what love means, what solitude is, how to heal, how to make sense of meaninglessness. Jim, while picking at his scabs, and digging the lint from his navel, takes enlightening philosophical turns. Reflecting on what it means “to live alone,” he decides it had meant “a life directed interiorly, shaved of all other perspective.” He’d set his house to be a “simple machine, a portal made of comfort and minimum decoration, to transport [him] to the nation where [he] had lived, named Mind, peopled by characters called Memory and Dream.” It is Jim’s depletion, forced by the huge energy expenditure of a hermit’s life, which ushers his awareness that he’s failed to realize his ambitions. And he ultimately learns that “self-knowledge was a myth of varying degrees of falsehoods.”
If Lim’s focus remained here, that is, on the contrast between Jim and Sarah’s ways of handling their divorce, Jim wavering between navel-gazing and nostalgia, Sarah allowing everything to fall apart, it would have been enough. But the narrative, in a manner at times astounding and often confounding, takes off in unexpected directions, much like the dream-logic of a David Lynch film. The mysterious twist begins when Sarah discovers a lost friend of Jim’s, named, appropriately enough, Frank Exit. Through a series of serendipitous encounters all threads somehow intertwine. How Lim manages to negotiate the reversals, to maintain believability, to take the reader with him, is only part of his success, for it is, ironically, the story’s lack of resolution that brings satisfaction.
Divided into three sections, “Mirror,” “Marriage,” and “Mirage,” Fog & Car masterfully navigates the subtext beneath dissolved relationships, paradoxically uses silence to create form. It balances, albeit in a detached tone, compassionate depictions of moral dissolution with Murakami-styled fabulist plot departures, dramatic reversals, and coincidental connections. It leaves the reader with a balled up jumble of narrative threads, but in such a sophisticated and befuddling manner as to force Murakami’s own mind into a tailspin. Fog & Car is an extraordinary debut.» - John Madera


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