In Review: Search History by Eugene Lim

Before we even reach the first word of the central narrative, it’s clear that Search History isn’t your typical novel. The first page almost looks like an antique print, and claims the book by an elongated title of no fewer than thirty-six words. The pages continue with a frontispiece of Miyoko Ito’s Oracle, a “true” title page, copyright, dedication, and three separate epigraphs (César Aira, The Gateless Gate, and Fran Lebowitz) before we reach “The Prologue to the Prologue.” This pre-prologue has four listed titles, as well as a mathematical equation:

THE LIBRARY OF BABEL = INTERNET

In case the Borges allusion wasn’t any clue, it doesn’t get any simpler from there. The prologue introduces our first recurring character, referred to throughout as “the dysthymic AI scientist,” only to immediately suggest that the paragraphs describing her were written by a robot named César Aira. Attention shifts to César and his wife, Onoto, who are quickly reincarnated through a sequence of scenes reflecting our current era: a gallery opening in Chelsea, a cell phone factory in Dongguan, garbage drifting in the Atlantic, a scab teacher messaging a content moderator. Throughout, they reference their previous experiences and their existence as fictional characters, before they ultimately are winked out of existence, before they can go any further “down the rabbit hole.”

Again; this is just through the prologue.

With Search History, Lim has dug a rabbit hole like no other. While the central narrative focuses on the death of a man named Frank Exit, and his friend who believes he has been reincarnated as a dog, it’s also interrupted by a variety of other stories, which feature artificial intelligence, jellyfish, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a VR game called Avant Gardener and a place known only as the Basement Food Court of Forking Paths.

Search History is as ceaselessly shapeshifting in its form as it is in its content. Throughout, Lim tirelessly pursues technical creativity, arriving at structures that feel both wonderfully surprising and perfectly suited for the material. In the chapter “Inauthentic Sushi,” a group of Frank’s friends meet at the titular restaurant to discuss their friend’s death. Though the section begins with tags identifying the speakers (“That’s impossible, Dave says. No it isn’t, Muriel says.”) these speech tags quickly fade away, leaving only the discourse, always following a particular, if meandering, thread, as the friends share stories about Amazonian tribes and “white poetry readings.” These moments of uninterrupted conversation feel less like a novel and more like being immersed in a bustling conversation with close friends, or a lively group chat. But later, in the chapter “Intelligent Artifice,” we return to the same friends at the same restaurant, finishing their meal. Now, every paragraph begins with a “_ says,” tag:

“Muriel says, Do you feel changed by Frank’s death?

Dave says, The other day I stumbled upon these paintings by Miyoko Ito.

Someone says, The problem with the dysthymic AI scientist’s project is her misunderstanding of the genre.

Muriel says, Because for me, it has been a subtle but decisive shift, occurring over months.”

Their conversation has been fractured, and can no longer even really be characterized as conversation but merely braided monologues, separate but somehow related. Because the characters are allowed to ruminate on their individual topics at such length, they are also able to provide insight with more context. It’s only after seeing Muriel consider death and her own mortality for pages that we feel the weight of her final answer:

“Muriel says, My point is that I loved my friend Frank…And because I loved my friend, I find I can’t spin away from the fundamental aspect of mortality underlying my life…. And because I can’t spin away, because I’m forced to look – tethered in a way by my love for the dead for the no-longer living – I am changed. My life has been changed irrevocably.”

It’s ultimately the strength of these insights, combined with the strange, associative resonance Lim builds across the work, that gives Search History its power. Search History isn’t a story about grief, identity, storytelling, art, a man named Frank Exit, the internet, or a dog named Izanami. It’s a story about all these things, and it’s one told in an impressively original way.

(Coffee House Press, Novel, October 5th 2021)


You can keep up with Eugene Lim’s work at his website or on Twitter @lim_eugene.


Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called Canandaigua. He has writing in Maudlin House, AAWW’s The Margins, and The Rumpus. He lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.