“Y/N” by Esther Yi

Y/N: A Novel, Esther Yi (Astra House, March 2023) Y/N: A Novel, Esther Yi (Astra House, March 2023)

An unnamed narrator who lives in Germany working as a copywriter for an asparagus company attends a concert with her roommate without being particularly interested, guided only by the temptation of free tickets. Here, she sees the “pack of boys”, the term used to refer to the Korean boy band around which her life will soon revolve. Each of the boys is undeniably beautiful, angelic, and have celestial names, such as “Moon”, “Mercury”, “Sun”, and “Venus”. In her descriptions of sold-out world tours and fans that burst into tears as soon as they see the boys, it’s tempting to try to match these characters to real bands. But everything about them, and the world that Esther Yi has created, is too weird and unsettling to be mistaken for real life. 

The narrator falls irrevocably in love with Moon, and the first time she sees him, she decides that she will want him forever but never dares to think they’ll actually be together, for that would signify realism that the novel doesn’t allow for. The only solution for the narrator is to reorient her entire life to focus directly on Moon. But there are threads of her life to be cut, such as Masterson, a man she was in a “situationship” with. Though Masterson doesn’t get much page-time, he’s a powerful force in the early parts of the novel, and the kind of guy you meet at a party who waxes poetic, unfairly distils philosophy, and interrupts your sentences. She books a one-way flight to Seoul, finds herself in a crummy little apartment, and, crucially, starts writing fan fiction.


Anybody who was a teenager in the 2010s—or was very online without parental supervision—already knows what “Y/N” means. It stands for “your name”, a placeholder that literally substitutes the reader’s name into a story so that you can watch yourself fall in love with pop heartthrobs instead of reading about somebody else doing it. After a point, the phonetic sound of “Y/N” will dissolve, and your brain is trained to repeat your name instead. During scenes of the narrator’s fan fiction, I found myself involuntarily substituting my own name. Old habits die hard.

The narrator’s fan fiction closely mirrors her real life, leading to a bizarre blur between what she is writing and what she is living, but these two narratives have different starting points. In her story, an alternate timeline is presented. Y/N imagines that she and Moon met before he discovered fame, fell madly in love, moved in together, and scraped by in obscurity. This changes when he discovers his dancing as a form of expression, and Y/N urges him to leave her to follow his dreams and reach the world’s biggest stages. Though she does this for his benefit, she also does it for herself, because staying in the space of desire is so much more fun than actually being with someone.

Back in the real world, the narrator is in Seoul when she meets “O”, another strange character who follows the narrator around only because of the soles of her shoes—ones which O made herself and was waiting to find on the street, inhabited by a stranger’s feet. O helps her track down Moon, and the two form the only tangible relationship in the novel. The narrator’s search leads her to the Polygon Plaza, the futuristic building that houses the pack of boys, run by the “Music Professor”, a woman who is responsible for the boys—them being her “sole project until she retired”. Eventually, after a few more stops, she finds Moon. As expected, “It’s just so much better in our heads.” Ultimately, while Yi’s story is wildly imaginative with a propulsive plot, the novel would have benefited from characters that were more solid. Yet this, of course, would defeat the purpose of the placeholder “Y/N”, a person bound to be bland because everyone must see themselves reflected in it.


Y/N’s hazy prose results in drifting attention, and one cause is the stumbling phrases of characters:


Masterson seemed to have set aside his own pleasure like some discrete object and returned to my body with a noble sense of purpose, embarking on touches I experienced, to my perturbation as repayment of some kind.


This prose is self-described by the narrator as “confused and vaporous”. Yet sometimes, the story’s haziness is cut through to reveal biting, satirical clarity, as when the boys refer to their fans as “livers”, giving the reason that “we weren’t just expensive handbags they carried around. We kept them alive, like critical organs.”

Through the course of Y/N, Yi is not interested in dissecting the obviously unattainable who we want, but how we want. Reading Y/N is akin to falling down a dark corner of the internet or letting imagination run wild. The story is seeped in desire with

Without any sexiness or passion, but told instead with sacrosanct brevity. The final result is a dreamy and impenetrable smokescreen of a novel, where confused characters populate a sparse plot peppered with Esther Yi’s razor-sharp writing.

Mahika Dhar is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer based in New Delhi. She is the creator of bookcrumbs and her short stories have appeared in Seaglass Literary, Through Lines and Minimag among others.