Jinwoo Chong’s Flux is the kind of twisty, time-bending novel that slips out of your hands and leaves you guessing at every corner, and its ambition makes it surprising to be just a debut. Our three main characters, Bo, Brandon, and Blue, exist within different lifetimes but are all connected by grief — Bo loses his mom in an accident around Christmastime, Brandon is laid off from his job and falls down an elevator shaft, and Blue, voiceless, is about to testify against a glamorous but fraudulent company he had worked for. Brandon, though, is where the focus shines: after losing his job, he falls deep into a new company, Flux, whose enigmatic CEO tells promises she might not be able to keep.
Our Culture sat down with Chong to discuss his novel, infusing screenwriting with fiction, the art of celebrity culture, and more.
Congratulations on your debut novel! What does it feel like for it to be out?
It’s very nice! A lot of things I would hoping would happen have happened, and it’s worked out in so many ways. When you’re trying to be a writer, you think about it all day long, these things, and it feels really relieving. It feels like a big weight is off. I thought I’d be a little more crushed by expectations, but I don’t really feel that way — I feel more empowered, which is a nice place to be so far.
That’s great! What were some of the things you hoped for?
I really, above all, wanted to be in the New York Times Book Review, not the newly published little column, but a full review, because they commission artwork for that. [The artist] is still a design student, but she went with this fairytale-sort, anime-inspired work… It’s so cool and it’s the perfect piece to go along with that review. And it was nice that the review was positive too. It could have been a really bad review.
So Flux, narratively, combines a lot — there’s the three storylines with Bo, Brandon, and Blue, and while that’s going on, we learn about an 80’s action show called Raider that some of the characters are fixated on. Where did these strings start to emerge, and when did you mix them all together?
It started with me wanting to make a fictional Silicon Valley scam. I had just finished Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou, the journalist that exposed Elizabeth Holmes for what she was. That resulted in all of the stuff that came out. I read that, and I thought, ‘This is such ample ground for something speculative, and to incorporate something weird and surreal into it.’ Maybe it was just because offices and office novels are inherently strange and unnatural and really cool to write about, so that’s where I started. It kinda got away from me as I was writing it. It was just so many things popping in, especially because I was writing it in my MFA program. As most of us know, those programs push you towards literary fiction over genre. A lot of the television and society and pop culture aspect being dissected in a way, those came out of those discussions and the workshops I was having. Also, experimenting with different points of view was a new thing for me — I’ve never really written something from multiple POVs. That was something I felt pushed to do in my MFA as an experimental thing. It was very piecemeal. I typically don’t like when that happens — I get very stressed out when my ideas, before I write them down, get corrupted or transformed by other things. Usually, when I’m trying to put something together, I do it as quickly as I can so I don’t get carried away, but with this book, the opposite happened. It started taking on all of these random things I kept thinking of, including the show, and everything I said since.
That’s so interesting — it felt like the show was one of the ideas that was there from the start, but it seemed like it was improvisational and you just kept going with it.
Oh, yeah. Raider was not supposed to be very big, at all. It was just supposed to be something that Brandon was obsessed with, that he could bring up at any point to talk about, and the important point was that nobody would get it because nobody had seen the show. But then it just became so much fun to write those episodes and pretend to be a screenwriter. Detective shows and police procedurals, especially, are so interesting to me because they’re anthologies but they have recurrent themes or characters. You can do so much with just one episode, and it felt that way when I was writing. I took a lot of what I had seen from Law & Order and CSI and things like that.
Especially with the time-switching that’s in the middle of some characters’ narratives, there’s this feeling that anything can happen. How did you manage to keep everything on track?
Yes! The putting together of the book, I did in its entirety before I started writing it. Which is to say I put it all in this gigantic, kind of psychotic outline that grew to 50 pages long, it had random pieces of dialogue I found interesting, Raider’s catchphrase, character information, reminders for myself, a skeleton of the book, along with the chapters, and all of that was worked out beforehand. That seems to be the way I most efficiently go about writing, because it’s just a lot easier to tackle a blank page than going in totally blind. I know some people can do it, and it’s just superhuman to me, the way some people can just work in a page without anything to hold them. I definitely can’t do that. I just kind of simmered with the outline for a long time, and I wrote the book in about four months after I thought the outline was totally done.
We first meet Brandon, the main character, sleeping with his boss and getting laid off from his fancy magazine job, after which he spends his severance package on an expensive bag. Where did the idea for this character come from?
Oh, that 100% happened to me. The one difference being, I wasn’t sleeping with my boss. I used to work at a company called Time Inc., which was spun off from Time Warner when that existed, and was the publisher of Time, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, and People. I used to work on the People side, doing customer retention. Time Inc. was a 150-year old company, and it sold itself in 2017 to another conglomerate called Meredith, and laid off all my team, including me, and it was my first job out of college, it was horrible. I went downstairs and I bought a wallet with essentially my severance package, and I felt exactly the same way Brandon did — it felt very empty. I think it was a good lesson in combating consumerism, that’s probably the one positive I can take from the whole experience. But that felt like such a contained episode, that would just lend itself to be a chapter so I felt a lot of inspiration from that.
There’s this detailing of Jacket Guy and his adventures in Raider to the point of fan obsession. Was it fun to come up with all these television episodes and narratives?
Oh, it was the best part of writing this whole thing. I think I hold in my heart a dream of being a screenwriter and working in TV and film, but that’s even harder to get into than publishing. And my education and being an English major and doing creative writing this whole time kind of lent itself more towards books and publishing. This was me having fun, doing this form I didn’t really ever get to do during class in the MFA. I was taking a lot of inspiration from TV that I’d seen, and I thought it was interesting for me, as someone who didn’t live through the 80s, to take on this idealized and modernized perspective of the 80s. Kind of like the way Stranger Things and other random shows set in the 80s do now. It’s very aesthetic, stylized, and I loved doing that and working with it. It was also a great way to exercise the way that I try to not write anything if I can’t visualize it, or see it play out. It felt like such a natural thing that came very easily. That’s probably why, when I decided to add the show, it took up much more space than I thought it would, at first.
So after the show, the actor that played Raider, Antonin Hauber, was exposed to be secretly abusive, and his hotshot son writes a lengthy statement distancing himself from his father’s name and estate. What did you want to explore with this idea?
I think it happens all the time, and I think the effect it has on fans is a really tragic thing that I feel like everyone has to go through constantly. I can think of many Antonin Haubers in my life, and it was a very traumatic thing to go to. Especially because this is someone that Brandon looked up to — he was such a formative part of his personhood. To see it corrupted, or exposed, for something he didn’t think it was, he felt betrayal. Which is what I think a lot of people feel towards Michael Jackson, or Woody Allen, all these people who, for most of people’s literal lives, have been a part of them, and now have to be ripped away. I do think that’s the moral thing to do, to rip it away, because I don’t really think we can see a Woody Allen movie or going to Harry Potter world without playing a part of the proliferation of what they believe in. That’s just my personal opinion. So then, the answer is to take it out and rip it away, which is really painful and horrible and can be awful to go through.
More specifically, because I was thinking about the son who changes his name, was it exploring virtue signaling or just optics?
I think it’s revealed later that it’s a very calculated move on his part. With people that famous and with that much money hinging on their popularity, I think it’s the same way with politicians, it’s always a calculated move. A person in that position is not capable of doing something genuine, because whatever they do will be pushed out into media and transformed in ways that a normal person would not be. I think about Timothée Chalamet, where, right when Woody Allen was canceled, his movie with Selena Gomez had just came out. The two of them donated their salaries to a charity, and both had come off completely scot-free. Nobody even talks about it. I think it has something to do with their likeability as people, the fact that they’re stain-free, otherwise, whereas others have tried to do that, but they’re not as likable or attractive or in vogue, it hasn’t worked out for them. It’s very subjective and depressing to see, and I think it speaks to how ridiculous all of celebrity culture is. It’s all fake and nobody means anything they say.
Brandon gets into this turbulent relationship with his new job, Flux, where he goes on whirlwind nights out and meets an enigmatic boss, the Elizabeth Holmes-type Io Emsworth. What drew you into creating this luxurious company?
I feel like everybody’s telling a story from the perspective of a person who infiltrates the in-crowd or the ridiculous plastic world, it’s so interesting to people and so unlike real life. I feel like this wave of domestic, real-people fiction has dipped down in deference to this Succession-kind of thing, where everyone is the kind of maximalist version of themselves. It’s partially people’s need for some escapism at this moment, and a lot of this happened during the pandemic, where it was just people glomming onto increasingly fantastic things in fiction. The world of Silicon Valley and tech and intersection of those worlds with celebrity meme-ism and pop culture; the fact that Jeff Bezos goes to Coachella — that is sickening, but so engrossing and it sucks you in. The way that people talk and act, it’s all a part of this thing that’s so fun to observe. That’s probably why I set it there — it’s this high-energy thing that felt so unnatural where it felt like anything could happen and you could get away with anything. A lot of the stakes or guardrails and what can realistically happen are thrown out of the window when you enter a space like that, and it feels very liberating.
In Bo’s section, we witness the aftermath of his mother’s death, which the eight-year-old feels guilty for. Was it tough to get into this mindset of childhood innocence?
I feel a lot for Bo, because I feel like a lot of children react that way that he does when they experience something like that — they kind of wait for attention to be given to them, or they ask for it, or they’re desperate for it. Bo spends all his time begging people to understand him or acknowledge his pain, and very few people do that for him. That’s probably what burns away and makes him into such a cynical person. I think a lot of children are unlucky to have that happen to them and for adults to be unequipped to handle that for them. I wanted to show how something like that, trauma, or grief, can transform a person over time, especially when it happens very young, and it turns into different things and they develop a relationship with it that changes as they get older. Which was why it was so interesting to work with three different characters at three different ages, where each were dealing with a kind of grief, and each’s response to it were so different because of where they were in their lives.
Finally, what’s next? Do you have another novel idea in mind?
I have a new book that is about to go on submission — I wrote it while Flux was being rejected by every editor in existence. It took about 8 months to sell that book, so I just wrote a new one. I was trying to feel happy, so this new book ended up a lot more joyous and funny and way more autobiographical. So I’m excited about that, because it’s completely different. I’m a little nervous as to people thinking, ‘Well, why did you even write your first book if this was the kind of thing you were going to do next?’ I am nervous about that but I’m hoping whoever reads the new one can see that there are some strings that connect it to what I was talking about. It’s still a book about family and how people change over time, so we’ll see. Who knows?
Flux is available now.