Ariana Nevarez reads Joon Oluchi Lee

Neoteny is “the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal,” or “the sexual maturity of an animal while it is still in a mainly larval state,” according to Oxford Languages. Neotenica is Joon Oluchi Lee’s collection of vignettes about Young Ae and her husband––two people living through adulthood with the retention of the occasional juvenile feature. Lee has created a brief and funny novel that manages to convey deep intimacy while keeping emotion out of the field of awareness. Neotenica offers so much life in exploring the subtle complexities of relationships between people. 

Quickly into the novel it is strikingly apparent that the relationship between Young Ae and her husband lacks emotion or passion. What comes slower is the revealing of the capacity that the two each have for tender intimacy––often shared with complete strangers. Life is only breathed into the characters of Young Ae and her husband through their encounters with and in the context of other people. Two thirds of the way through the book, Young Ae demonstrates such an unexpected and beautiful moment of friendship when she lends an ear to a complete stranger in a laundromat. It isn’t until almost the very end of the book we get to see Young Ae’s husband express a genuinely selfless love for his wife and demonstrate his ability to generate an infinite amount of love to put out into the world. 

“I don’t know why you think about love as a can of stuff to be used up. I have more than enough for my wife and a dog.” As soon as he spoke the words they felt dumb, yet true.

“Because love makes you tired. Don’t you know that yet?”

“No. It doesn’t make me tired. It’s obvious it’s made you tired.”

“You shouldn’t talk to me like this. Listen to your mother, and think carefully about this decision. It is just an animal. It has no consequence. You are going to spend too much time with this animal that will bring you nothing at the end.”

Young Ae’s husband wondered what he, as a human thing to his mother, was expected to bring to her. He couldn’t guess at all.

“I’m pretty sure that I’ve brought you nothing in the end, and I’m a human and your biological child,” he continued. “I’m not sure that Young Ae will bring me anything real at the end, either. And Mom, I’m actually OK with that.”

Young Ae and her husband are obviously adults, but the influence of their juvenile experiences have spilled over into their adulthood, shaping the way they interact with the world around them. Lee depicts people who are capable of great love and friendship, but so influenced by their past they struggle to communicate effectively. 

Neotenica also examines the commonplace violences of the world––the ones so small and woven into the fabric of daily life that they’re rarely talked about––and our attempts at dealing with and taking control of violent narratives forced upon us. The normalization of violence by its use in our everyday language, the sexualization of violence––especially in regard to women and members of the LGBTQ+ community––the moments when pain is comforting and when softness makes us uncomfortable are all things that flow through the back of your mind when reading Neotenica

I started to answer and place anonymous sex ads on Craigslist. The ads I answer don’t vary too much. Mostly they tend to ask for some sort of servitude, phrased in a vaguely homophobic and openly misogynistic way: “seeking cocksucking bitch,” “Need Bitch With Boy Pussy.” I answer these ads because experience taught me that the violence of the language is an oversized shirt under which a mild boy sits with a hard-on… Even when you are horny sometimes you feel like staying political. I draw the line at calling myself a “bottom” because I don’t believe in gay labels.

The theme of stereotypes that lay at the intersection of race, sexualily and gender permeate Neotenica much in the same way they do throughout American systems: they are woven into everything, even if they are rarely discussed head-on. The novel gives these topics multiple dimensions and considers them as they are: layered, specific, tangible parts of life, rather than flat or abstract concepts.

He didn’t know what made the army want to pounce on him but he knew the feelings that came out of them. It had something to do with West Oakland. It wasn’t anything about bullets, though; it wasn’t anything about guns or old cars wearing chrome stilettos. It wasn’t about welfare, it wasn’t about no fathers, it wasn’t about Rodney King. It wasn’t about cops, it wasn’t about bags of pot or fat bottles of malt liquor with dumb obscene names. It wasn’t about Hunter’s Point, it wasn’t about the predator and the prey. It wasn’t about low-income housing, it wasn’t about GEDs. It wasn’t about AIDS, it wasn’t about babymamas. It wasn’t about the war in Iraq and it wasn’t about the overcrowded prison system that seemed to encircle the entire peaceful, still hippy-dippy Bay Area. It wasn’t about history and it wasn’t about hate.

The train pulled into Embarcadero and no one was waiting to get in. The doors slid open without any emotion and the army had already moved into another car lightly, as a pack of angels. Loudly, they ran in grace.

There is a distinct blurring of the masculine and the feminine throughout this narrative and Lee’s language, even when describing something as small as clothes on the floor: “The handbag was on the floor next to the cliché pile of lacy underwear. But the other discarded clothes of the man and the woman were less gendered, all crumpled on the floor.” This blurring happens everywhere in the novel, but in regard to sex, tends to suggest that the most pleasurable experiences sex can bring us is the melding of two bodies into one genderless experience, regardless of who is having sex with who. In one of the steamiest scenes in the novel a man reflects: “I want to say it made my whole body feel like a vagina, except I had an erection. But it does make me feel like a vagina, because while I’m getting harder, I have no desire to jerk off or pay attention to my penis at all.”

Neotenica will have you laughing out loud, marveling at the complexities of the human experience, and rethinking what a successful marriage can be. Beauty in this novel can be found in many different forms, it’s deeply affected by the onlooker and only slightly reflective of the actual thing itself. This perspective makes for a compelling image of beauty in Neotenica through Lee’s words. 

Both Young Ae and Ji Eun radiated softness, but Young Ae was tortured by a feeling, every day, of being a knife made out of calico and cotton stuffing, constantly trying to cut stuff harder than herself. With her angled, congenitally fatless face, Young Ae was arguably slightly more gorgeous than Ji Eun, but when people saw the two together they found Ji Eun to be the beautiful one, probably because Young Ae had a tendency to lecture, hands perpetually karate chopping in counterweight time to her massive verbiage as Ji Eun usually stood silently, slightly behind her. People used to men’s ways of desiring women found her silence to be gentle and sweet, a welcoming passivity. But others were slightly frightened by it. 

You can purchase Neotenica by Joon Oluchi Lee from Nightboat Books here: