On the cover of YZ Chin’s debut novel, Edge Case, there’s a branch of tomatoes. The branch evokes at once both a binary search tree and some sort of temporal anomaly: the tomato at the top of the branch remains an unripened green, while the one at the bottom is already soft and bruised. It’s also reminiscent of the oft-quoted fig tree scene from The Bell Jar, in which the narrator, Esther, imagines her potential futures laid out before her as figs on a tree. Unable to decide, Esther picks none of the figs, and watches as they fall to the ground and rot.
For immigrants to the United States like Edwina, the main character of Edge Case, the agency which Esther feels over her own future must seem like such a luxury as to nearly be obscene. Between hoping for employee sponsorships, praying to win lotteries, and all of the interminable waiting, immigrants must always be prepared for whole swathes of their “figs” to be completely stripped away. Edwina explains that she is constantly holding two “forked lives” in her head: one in which see maintains residence and feels “an intense love for the great nation of the United States,” and another in which she must leave and carry “a heavy loathing for this uncaring, capricious machine of a country.”
Living in this state of limbo, waiting for myriad potentials to collapse into a single reality, would be enough to stress anyone. It’s only the beginning of Edwina’s problems though: she’s being constantly berated by her mother about her weight, and belittled at her workplace (a tech startup called AInstein) for her gender and her under-appreciated role in quality assurance. On top of all this, she must not only track her own immigration status but that of her husband. Another Malaysian immigrant, Marlin has been acting strangely since the death of his father, drifting ever further from Edwina. When she comes home one day and finds him abruptly gone, it comes less as a surprise and more of an inevitability.
It’s this conflict – Edwina’s search for her husband, and the possibility of their reconciliation – that is the driving force for much of the narrative. However, as can likely be extrapolated from the long list of issues, it’s far from being the entirety of the novel. Part of the horrible difficulty of Edwina’s situation is that it can’t be her sole focus: she can’t afford to drop everything to find Marlin, or, really, to behave abnormally at all. The morning after she finds her husband missing, when all she wants to do is go searching for him, Edwina reminds us:
In Edge Case, Edwina’s workplace functions not only as an arbiter of whether she can maintain residence, but also as an extra stressor on her psyche, and source of further conflict. Some of this comes from the environment, and Edwina’s experience of that environment as the sole woman employee. Chin, who has previously worked as a software engineer, succinctly and accurately captures the atmosphere of misogyny that accumulates in these small, male-dominated start-up spaces:
“It wasn’t that every single man on my team was virulently sexist. In fact, more than a couple of them seemed quite decent on their own… The problem was that as a group, the tone was set by the two or three guys who seemed to think women were ill-equipped by nature to do certain things…”
One of the “two or three guys” Edwina refers to is a software engineer named Josh, who is constantly pestering her to give notes on his sci-fi-fantasy-mystery-romance novel, Gone with the Galactic Superwind. Josh is obnoxious enough that one hopes he is pure caricature, but well-written enough that it never quite feels that way. This makes him a perfect side-character: one that feels real, but that readers are happy to actively root against.
This attention to side characters is a real talent on YZ Chin’s part. The supporting cast of Edge Case, from Edwina’s mother-in-law to Marlin’s best friend, Eamon, are all well-rendered and given the right amount of space. Edwina’s mother is a particularly interesting example of this. After Edwina recounts how her mother bought her a life-size cutout of a beauty queen to encourage her weight loss, she is also quick to push her mother back out of the stereotypical, “harsh, unfeeling, tactless Asian mother” trope. “I see how my depictions reduce her,” Edwina writes. “And what if in my case, it is a truthful depiction?… It is so hard to trust our own thoughts.” By qualifying our perception through Edwina’s commentary, Chin makes Edwina’s mother seem far fuller than she might otherwise.
Edwina’s mother also performs the important function of providing “past lives” stories. A believer in reincarnation, she explains through folk tales how Edwina’s poor conduct in previous lives have contributed to the hardships she faces today. For example, a horrific fire and burning in a past life formed the mole now on Edwina’s face. It is surprising how well these inserted stories operate in the larger work, contributing both to the narrative movement and also to the overall texture. More generally, it feels like there’s very little waste throughout Edge Case; every flashback and digression feels necessary either for our understanding of the characters or for the plot itself. It’s impressive that in a novel composed of short chapters roughly alternating between “After” and “Before” Marlin’s disappearance, the reader never feels lost, or like they’re reading something unimportant.
With Edge Case, Chin has managed to create a novel which captures not only the precarity of immigration but also the complexity of familial relations, the banality of start-up culture, and the inherent uncertainty that comes with building your life with someone else. That her debut also feels so relevant and readable is a testament to the strength of her craft.
(Ecco/HarperCollins, Novel, Aug. 10, 2021)
You can keep up with YZ Chin’s work at her website or on Twitter @yz_chin.
Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called Canandaigua. He’s written short fiction for Maudlin House, non-fiction for The Rumpus, and is a student at the Writer’s Studio. He lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.