STEPH CHA’S DEBUT NOVEL Follow Her Home is a double exposure of Los Angeles, two contrasting images of the city layered one on top of the other. One image depicts the “real” contemporary Los Angeles, often seen through a car window while stuck in traffic; the other is the noir version, sanctified by Raymond Chandler (and subsequently Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley, Megan Abbott, and James Ellroy), where a car becomes the perfect place to hide a dead body.
The opening of Follow Her Home is eerily familiar: A deco-ish apartment building somewhere in Los Angeles on a dry summer night, dead except for the velocity of cars driving by. We can already hear the body count ticking, the mystery that’s about to detonate. The apartment building, called “The Marlowe,” is, the narrator informs us, “more likely to house the rich degenerates of Chandler’s novels than his wisecracking private eye with a heart of noir gold.” The strong sense of déjà vu is intentional. The narrator, Juniper Song, a Korean-American in her mid-20s, has been obsessed with Raymond Chandler and his fictional counterpart Philip Marlowe since high school: “I went from book to book, consuming everything that was Philip Marlowe. I savored his words, studied his manners and methods. I carried him with me like an idol.”
Given Song’s profile, it’s hard to tell whether the book’s mystery found her or if she was simply looking for one to solve. On a shred of evidence (an inexplicable Chanel receipt), Song’s best friend, Luke, suspects his father is cheating with a young employee named Lori Lim and solicits Song to see what kind of dirt she can dig up. Song agrees, eager to play out her Marlowe fantasy. Everything’s copacetic until Song is whacked unconscious by an unknown assailant outside Lori’s house. The K.O. sends her down a rabbit hole, and she wakes up in in a hardboiled wonderland. That her life has suddenly become a noir novel is an irony not lost on her. “For all my fascination with the violence of noir,” Song muses, “I had never fantasized its intrusion into my own life. I stayed still for several minutes, blinking often.”
Song’s double vision lingers, and she can’t stop seeing all the ways her new reality fails to live up to Chandler’s fiction. She encounters a femme fatale and finds herself trailed by a real P.I. — only the P.I. is a spineless putz and the femme fatale an overbearing mother. If Song is Marlowe, then she is the Marlowe played by Elliot Gould in Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, a Marlowe romantically infatuated with an ideal that is foolishly outmoded, if not downright unrealistic. Song tosses off similes like flicking ash from a cigarette, but when Cha tries hardest to imitate Chandler’s inimitable rococo voice, the writing turns brittle and comes off sounding overly processed, digitized even. While this flaw is probably unintentional, it makes sense that Song (or Cha) fails to match Marlowe’s (Chandler’s) verbal dexterity, because so much of the novel dramatizes Song’s inability to live up to her literary hero.
On the first page of Follow Her Home, Song announces, “I was everything a half-employed twentysomething should be on the sober end of a Friday night.” If you take away the mystery, the setup resembles the recent spate of novels, TV shows, and New Yorker articles chronicling the desultoriness of post-college life. But instead of simply holding up a mirror, Cha investigates issues of identity and family through noir, using the stiff structure that the genre offers to transform more personal topics, literally, into matters of life and death — family being its own mystery, as baffling and unfathomable as a missing girl. In the novel’s femme fatale, Lori Lim, Song sees her dead sister Iris. They share a particular naive coquettishness, as well as a tendency to attract older men who creep on young Asian women. Glimpsed through a series of resonant flashbacks, Iris is the heart of Cha’s novel. She doesn’t just motivate Song to pursue Lori’s case; she is the reason Song is so obsessed with Marlowe and noir in the first place. Song’s love for her sister is the source of her scarred single-mindedness, her determination to keep going until the mystery is solved and justice served, no matter the cost. It is what makes her, in a word, noir. “After what happened to Iris,” Song confesses, “the favorite character of my youth became a fixture in my life. I found more than fantasy in the world of noir, and I sank into the scorching bleakness with self-punishing relish.” If Follow Her Home doesn’t necessarily render that “scorching bleakness” viscerally, then it does affectingly explore the reasons we continue to pursue it, with relish.