Book Time: “Emergency Contact” by Mary H.K. Choi

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Mary H.K. Choi is one of those writers you would gladly allow to take over your brain. You read any of her words and immediately want her to comment on anything and everything. She has trained her perfectly eye-linered gaze on such myriad subjects as formative experiences, Korean Thanksgiving, moms, and the joys of fruit-tinged sparkling water. She has written comic books (among them “Lady Deadpool”) and founded a magazine. But no matter how much of her I am blessed with, I always want more of her stealth devastating observations. (Might I bother you to rewrite the entire Internet, Mary?)

Choi’s recent book “Emergency Contact” proved to be another “Alien”-style takeover, a welcome invasion. Her world of budding relationships and texts pulses with humor, loving detail, and everyday pain. She brings us Penny, a college freshman who wants to be a writer, and Sam, an aspiring director who works at a coffee shop and can bake like a tattooed Nancy Birtwhistle. When Sam passes out on an Austin sidewalk, Penny rescues him, and the emergency contacting begins.

After they meet, Penny and Sam rarely see each other in person, but come to have an outsized presence in another sphere. They text almost compulsively, sharing random thoughts and ephemera, the minutia of each day (“Maraschino cherries are the undead” – “It’s never too late for Pringles” – I baked a SHEETCAKE”). Choi alternates between Penny and Sam’s perspectives, and merges them in these text conversations. This is where Choi pulls off perhaps the biggest feat of the book – portraying text messages without veering into pandering mode. For a 2016 Wired article, she interviewed teens about the role of social media in their lives, and her genuine empathy and understanding of that relationship imbues the book with a knowing glow.

“Emergency Contact” keeps revealing new parts of itself, additional layers of flavor, like the best candy. Sam and Penny each have fraught relationships with their mothers, and each have past traumatic events haunting them, consciously or not. Various friendships bring the pair out of themselves. Penny is writing a science fiction story for a class (one I wish I could have read in its entirety) and Sam starts to film the town’s skater kids. This book became like my phone itself – addictive, unputdownable, I had to keep checking it, and that was when I could wrench myself away from it at all. I needed to see inside Penny and Sam’s text world. What were they going to say to each other now? (“Top 5 fav things in the world/don’t think about it just type.”) I wanted to know everything going on in their brains, and how those brains interacted.

Choi stretches “emergency contact” beyond a line on a piece of paper – Sam and Penny are keepers of each other’s thoughts, and can’t stop the urge to pour these details out. “He wanted a record of his thoughts and feelings and stories to exist with her. Like a time capsule for this strange period of his life.” Penny is a collection of information she doles out in random doses, but Sam understands why. “Stories never started or ended where you’d think they would with Penny, but it was important to listen for when it came together.”

As Penny and Sam text about sheet cake and piercing anxieties, they become this treasured outlet to one another. They both agree that it’s okay they never actually hang out – they’re pretty great at texting (Penny: “Phones rule/Humans drool.”). Choi effectively plays with what it means to interface. After a whirlwind meeting, her characters slowly get to know each other through their phones: “It wasn’t a romance, it was too perfect for that. With texts there were only the words and none of the awkwardness. They could get to know each other completely and get comfortable before they had to do anything unnecessarily overwhelming like look at each other’s eyeballs with their eyeballs.” Again, Choi knows what that phone screen both relays and reflects. Penny and Sam’s burn starts fast and gets slow, and following it opens up questions about friendship, relationships, and what we talk about when we talk about connection. Mark Zuckerberg could never.

Though the last 100 pages or so are a sudden deluge of events – a recounting of sexual abuse, a road trip to see about Penny’s mom in the ER, Sam’s visit to his own mom – it was still expertly layered with exactly the kind of details you’d want to text to your own emergency contact. Choi is so good at characterization that all the rhymes end well. Everyone’s voices are delectably their own, their appearances and personalities lovingly and vividly drawn.

Besides the expert dialogue and fully realized characters, I most loved the space to “be” that Sam and Penny give one another. When she says what she most wants is to write, and he to make documentaries, they’re both a little embarrassed at these desires. But they unwittingly create a place where both these things are more than okay – they’re everything.

Read this book. Then go read everything else Choi has written. It’s an emergency.

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