“Don’t doubt yourself,” Moon said. “I’m exactly who you think I am. I don’t know how to be anyone else.”
When the narrator of Esther Li’s debut novel Y/N receives a free ticket from her roommate to attend the concert of a wildly popular Korean boy band, she is originally skeptical. A self-touted intellectual, she instantly catches sight of the superfluous, doting personalities of the boys and dismisses it as a clever marketing tactic to expand their fanbase, claiming that she “could love only that which made me secretive, combative, severe—a moral disappointment to myself and an obstruction to others.” However, despite her indictments of the band, she still winds up at the concert. There, she meets Moon—the youngest and most popular member of the “pack of boys,” and the man to absorb her attention for the remainder of the novel.
Instantly, she is transported into his world. Sardonically drawing from K-Pop’s tradition of world-building to promote their groups, Yi named each of the members after a planet, reinforcing their majesty and remoteness compared to regular human beings. The lyrics of their songs also emphasize the group’s philosophical bent:
“What does it mean to die on this planet? Aloneness, despair, confusion. A human being is a particle of dust in a galaxy. And what does it mean to live on this planet? Creation, desire, collision. A human being is a galaxy in a particle of dust.”
The lyrics are intentionally antithetical to the hackneyed phrases used and reused in contemporary American pop music, instead searching to convey deeper, more vulnerable, emotions. Not only must Korean pop music be commercially successful, it must also pursue a moral purpose that their music embodies. As is standard for most K-Pop groups, the “boys” are characterized in grandiose terms. They were “like a civilization” who went through “new eras,” all of which tapped into images of the Western canon and brought them to life. “In preparation for their current era, they’d pored over a Korean translation of Sophocles, troubled by Oedipus’s decision to blind himself,” Yi wrote. “…The album, a statement of protest against Oedipus’s capitulation to darkness, celebrated too much seeing, too much light.”
The somber themes of the boy group’s songs; the hordes of fans, deep in worship; the violence of the group’s impact across the world, from “[triggering] a power outage across an entire Pacific island” to bursting people’s eardrums—all of it seems a bit ridiculous when reconciled with the group’s purported commercial purpose of producing music. Indeed, music seems to be the least important part of the K-Pop experience: the albums serve as subterfuge to promote the industry’s secret product that is the personalities of the “boys” and the relationships that they form with their fans.
After the concert, the narrator becomes obsessed with Moon. Abandoning her job as an English copywriter, she instead devotes her time to copying notes that Moon hand-wrote for his fans and regularly attending his live streams. (Live streams are a new pillar of K-Pop group marketing, with idols video calling their fanbase while performing mundane activities such as lying in bed, preparing and eating food, or exercising on a yoga mat.) Referring to the viewers as “livers”—for “we kept them alive, like critical organs”—Moon conversed with them with careless intimacy, his face consuming the entire phone screen. On a different live stream, he ropes another member, Mercury, into serving as a representative for his fans, with whom he would reenact his fan’s romantic fantasies with him:
“Is there any part of you that’s not beautiful? Mercury asked. “Show me. then I’ll know for sure that you’re a real person.”
“Moon slid his hands across the table: “My cuticles.”
Mercury bent his head over Moon’s hands and pushed back one cuticle after another. he tore out excess bits of skin and made a little pile. Then he sprinkled the bits into his mouth and chewed, the working of his jaws suggesting a consistency like that of jerky.”
“I love even your dead skin,” he said mournfully. “I’m doomed.”
The loaded intimacy of the scene is only matched by its grossness—a juxtaposition that Yi draws many times throughout the novel. When a fan loses the mask of anonymity, the force of their love is revealed as a clearly exhaustive and debilitating burden for the idol to bear, and the love itself is disfigured. Writing long, passionate Instagram comments about their undying love for an idol, or praising a minor detail about the idol’s physical features—replicated by Mercury, these events reveal the strange, unsettling depths of parasocial love and its uncomfortable, but not wholly incompatible, presence when transposed onto a relationship between individuals.
However, when Moon quits the boy band abruptly, the narrator’s obsession reaches new heights; she breaks up with her boyfriend and moves to Seoul in pursuit of Moon. There, she meets people similar to herself—for instance, a pair of Moon fans who had started dating out of their mutual love for him. However, she realizes that she can feel no solidarity with them, although they frequently court her attention. What she wants from Moon is a question that she is unable to settle with herself. Not wanting to confine herself to the ordinariness of romantic love, she instead believes that her and Moon’s souls had known each other in a previous life—and it is her duty to remind him of this fact. Her course of action? To read to him the fanfiction that she wrote about him, which details the life that she thought they had once shared.
As Yi establishes in amusing and uncomfortable detail, celebrity worship can easily become the bedrock of a person’s life—whether it is a virtue or vice is outside of the novel’s scope. Indeed, the term “parasocial relationship” has been used to characterize our modern zeitgeist with increasing frequency. Celebrity worship is not new: according to the Columbia University professor Sharon Marcus, the word “celebrity” began to accrue colloquial valence in the eighteenth century, with the advent of the printing press and industrial modes of transportation. Distinct from the “heroes of ancient Greece and Rome” and “medieval saints,” who sought fame in recognition in eternity after their deaths, celebrities were known and revered during their life. Moreover, while most famous people before the 18th century had been limited to the rulers and conquerors, the type of person who could be a “celebrity” expanded drastically when the public became interested in the writers, artists, politicians, performers, and scientists who shaped their internal and external existences. Jean Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron, and Oscar Wilde were among the first people to endure the modern celebrity experience, becoming the subject of gossip, the object of stalkers, and the recipient of a ceaseless volume of autograph requests.
While America has been described as an “individual-loving people,” it is clear that celebrity is now a global phenomenon. Realizing that celebrity coverage sells, many newspapers found it in their best interest to continue publishing stories about the celebrities currently in vogue, which also provided celebrities with a great opportunity to communicate with fans.
In its modern iteration, celebrity worship is ubiquitously rampant: one need only follow the astronomical prices of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour tickets to appreciate the degree of loyalty and devotion that fans feel for their favorite celebrities, and the monetary lengths that they will go to in order to share the same space for a couple hours. However, the parasocial relationships that exist at the heart of K-Pop, the weaponization of which has led to K-Pop’s staggering rise in the international sphere, are the subject of far more censure and speculation. Are the parasocial relationships that characterize K-Pop aberrant or more intense than those present in its American counterpart? Is the undue focus paid to it a result of racism, a willful blindness to the disturbing fan behavior that characterizes our own American industries? Or is it merely a fact?
In many ways, the parasocial relationships of K-Pop are an imitation of, and perhaps a tribute to, the vitriolic, assuaging luster of American celebrity culture. South Korea has followed in the United States’ footsteps in multiple avenues, from their commitment to neoliberalism under the “nurturement” of the U.S. and other developed countries to the design of their expressway systems.
However, Yi’s focus is not political—and neither is it geographic. The narrator is a Korean-American woman living in Berlin, her identity a whirlwind of different labels. She is joined on her spiritual journey by a menagerie of oddball characters, from O., the purported manufacturer of her shoes, and the Caregiver, who has devoted her life to providing end-of-life care for three demented patients.
Interestingly, names are a sparse commodity in Y/N. Esther Li’s novel does not only feature a nameless narrator, but the rest of the characters around her—such the nameless boy band, and the stage names of its members; her friends, who go by names that either only half-describe them (such as boyfriend Masterson) or are eventually discarded (her friend O)—also treat names with a cavalier disregard. Names are a means of expressing yourself, Yi argues—however, is it truly possibly to communicate that multitude? And what is gained when names are abandoned, as is the tradition of self-insert fanfiction such as the piece that the narrator wrote about moon? The narrator discovers that within this anonymity is a rattling freedom.
Reading Y/N is an exercise in drowning: the farther you get into the book, the stranger that it becomes. What starts as a humorous commentary on parasocial relationships changes color in the narrator’s misty conscience, as she falls deeper and deeper into the clutches of obsession. The story, at times, staggers under its own weight as the narrator’s mind narrows onto her target: her brief foray into cosplaying as Moon; her unstable relationship with her boyfriend; even the fanfiction that ostensibly exists at the crux of the novel, blurs as the narrator herself loses her capacity for cognitive complexity. Y/N‘s ending releases the reader from a sickening haze—brushing the the book’s magic from my skin, I was glad that it was over.