“[I]f I could make Americans laugh, then I would be accepted. I would be embraced and admired.”
Realistic, subtly off-beat, and keenly observed, Edge Case couples an indictment of the rampant misogyny that permeates the tech industry with an unsparing depiction of the everyday inequities and hurdles immigrants face in their pursuit of green cards and citizenship. Our narrator, Edwina, is a Malaysian woman of Chinese origin now living in New York and employed at AInstein, a tech startup working on an AI that can tell jokes. She’s married to Marlin, who is also Malaysian born but is of Chinese and Indian descent (his darker skin combined with him being from a majority Muslim country make him a target to both racism and Islamophobia). After the death of Marlin’s father, he begins to drift away from Edwina, and, much to her surprise, becomes increasingly preoccupied with the spirit world. One day Edwina returns home to discover it empty. Marlin has left her without leaving a note or any explanation.
A confused and hurting Edwina tries to make sense of his actions, compiling a list of the places he might have gone all the while questioning the motives behind his departure. Did he decide to return to Malaysia? Did he fall out of love with her? Or does it have to do with his newfound interest in spirits?
The novel takes place over the course of 10 days or so and we witness Edwina slowly coming apart. She struggles with her body image and food (after years of vegetarianism she begins to eat meat even if this results in her being physically unwell), with her self-esteem, and seems to experience difficulties wherever she is. Her calls with her mother, who has always been quick to criticise her appearance and life choices, are strained. Her best friend Katie seems oblivious to her crisis, encouraging her instead to forget Marlin and find someone else. Edwina is the only woman working at AInstein which results in her feeling understandably isolated. Her clannish male colleagues either ignore her, speaking over her, boohooing her ideas and feedback (for instance, when she points out that, surprise surprise, many of the jokes in their robot’s repertoire are sexist and or otherwise offensive, she’s told that she has no sense of humor because she’s 1) a woman 2) a foreigner). A white colleague of hers repeatedly toys the line between ‘banter’ and harassment, forcing her to proofread his crappy books and implying that she’s sleeping with other male colleagues.
Interspersed through this are flashbacks detailing Edwina and Marlin’s first meeting, their early days together, and their slow dissolution.
I liked and admired Edwina. Despite her situation, she’s determined to find out what happened to Marlin. At work she tries hard to be polite and agreeable but eventually, she’s forced into taking matters into her own hands. Her insecurities related to her body were certainly relatable and I appreciated how frank yet empathetic the author was when discussing this subject. Edwina’s desires, to be accepted by Americans, to be reunited with Marlin, were certainly understandable even if I did find myself questioning her devotion to Marlin. He behaves abhorrent towards and much of its chalked up to ‘he’s grieving’, which, fair enough, but, that doesn’t negate the months of emotional neglect and abuse. He drives Edwina to self-hatred, something I had a hard time glossing over. Having once shared a roof with an incredibly paranoid individual prone to gaslighting those around them, it just hit too close to home. His character never comes fully to life, part of it is because by the time the story begins he’s already gone MIA, and part of it is that even in the flashbacks he appears as a somewhat remote sort of figure, never coming into full focus.
Edwina on the other hand was an all too believable character. From her insecurities to her motivations, Edwina was a multi-faceted character one can easily relate to and root for. This made much of her narrative really hard to read. Many scenes focus on her being mistreated or overlooked. Her mother is constantly undermining her, claiming that in previous lives she was a terrible person. Her best friend is blind to her pain and despair. One of her colleagues is increasingly inappropriate towards her while the others behave like sexist tech-bros. Edwina struggles to navigate her male-dominated workplace, their harmful ‘it’s a boys’ club’ mentality.
Through Edwina’s perspective, we witness how her day-to-day life is punctuated by sexism (both in and outside the workplace), racism, discrimination, and body shaming. Edwina’s estrangement from Marlin affects the way she interacts with the world and she becomes increasingly disconnected from others. Her anxiety and loneliness are exacerbated by the fact that she’s surrounded by Americans. Her apprehension over Marlin’s welfare, her discomfort at work, her anxiety about her immigration status, her sense of inadequacy, all of these things result in a rather heavy-going narrative. While Edwina’s wry and self-deprecating tone does alleviate some of the tension, Edge Case is not a light read. The author’s deceptively simple prose belies the complex nature of Edwina’s story and this might not appeal to those who are looking for an easy-going or plot-driven narrative. Edge Case is a very introspective novel that provides a lot of food for thought.
I did find myself wishing for some more variety when it came to character interactions. Many scenes are just really uncomfortable to read, and, while I understand that they were realistic, it did get the repetitive reading time and again about people mistreating Edwina. Her passivity is understandable given her position, still, it was immensely satisfying to see her in action and I doubt many will condemn her for her actions. Marlin, as I said, remains a rather flimsy sort of figure, which detracted a lot from the story. The exploration of marriage also suffers because of it.
Another thing that detracted from my overall reading experience was the author’s choice to have Edwina recount these events—Marlin’s disappearance as well as their relationship—directly to us, her ‘therapist’, and addressing us as ‘you’. This framing device felt somewhat gimmicky and distracting. At times the prose could be a bit…icky, “ I felt his tongue spread like jam”, and we do get a few lines that were very superfluous, such as: “My belly button itched, and I scratched it”, or scenes that were trying to be ‘out there’ but struck me as contrived, such as that blood clot scene (it worked in I May Destroy You but here…eh).
In spite of these minor criticisms, I found Edge Case to be a thought-provoking and absorbing read. The author captures how it is to feel ‘other’, emphasizing how hard and exhausting it is to try to ‘assimilate’ into a culture different from the one you were born and raised in. Edwina believes that she will find acceptance through comedy, that by making people laugh she will belong but, as she herself realizes, it is all too easy to end up as the object of ridicule.
With acuity, clarity, and empathy, Chin presents us with an unsettling portrait, that of a woman in crisis. Alongside her exploration of Edwina’s identity, her marriage, her attempts at connection, Chin provides us with a candid look at contemporary America, underlining how sexist and toxic the tech industry is and the absurd rules and draconian policies immigrants have to circumnavigate. There are two scenes, in particular, one at an airport and another on the street, that truly emphasize how vulnerable Edwina and Marlin are in the U.S.
Lastly, this novel gets a plus just for mentioning one of my all-time fave books, Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson.
I look forward to reading more by Chin. Bravo!
my rating: ★★★½