flipping through the pages of today's dystopias with Ryan Richardson
I stocked up on the usual stuff during a trip to the bulk foods store. Pasta, beans, oats, toilet paper, soap. The masks and hand sanitizer were already out. Back home, there was something comforting to lining the cabinets with these crisp boxes of goods, bland and reliable. Purchase also means to have a hold on something.
To round out the survival package, I ordered books online. Indefensibly, I bought them on Amazon. A stack of novels, things I had been wanting to read. Maybe now I would be able to. Quarantine, before it became the burdensome state of suspension we’re all living in, momentarily shimmered with false promise. Finally enough time to do the things we care about, that we enjoy.
That was before motivation dried up and anxious distraction set in. Before harsh new realities began to reconfigure our desires and redefine what matters to us.
I resolved to read the stack of books anyway. I forced myself to sit still at night. There’s comfort in this too, the familiar lifelong posture of cradling a novel. Is this self-indulgence? Run-of-the-mill escapism? A pleasant distraction that should be off-limits right now, when there’s so much happening, so much to fret over?
I read, and keep reading. What does it mean to read, to read feverishly, in these times?
Ling Ma’s debut novel Severance was a hit when it came out in 2018. I’m far from the only person to have been drawn to this book recently, given its eerie premonitions of the current crisis.
A mysterious illness (“Shen Fever”) appears in China, dispersing into the world through global trade. People grow sick in exponential numbers, succumbing to a high fever which invariably proves fatal. N95s, quarantine, quibbles over the effectiveness of masks, work-from-home policies, travel bans, CDC guidelines, daily death tolls – it’s all there, the bureaucratic language of disorder, well before it became today’s vocabulary.
With alternating narratives of past and present, Severance weaves its story with emotional rawness and sardonic clarity. We follow the young Candace as she plunges into the corporate hellscape of New York (pre-collapse) and later joins up with fellow survivors navigating a more complete hellscape (post-collapse). These dual narratives are interspersed with Candace’s evocative, searching memories of her immigrant parents and her oh-so-millennial romance with her idealistic boyfriend.
Despite her book’s parallels with the coronavirus pandemic, I don’t think Ma is prescient in the predictive sense so much as clear-sighted about the dead-end world we have grown up in. Severance is about work as much as the end of the world. “I got up. I went to work in the morning.” The refrain begins chapter after chapter, adorning the unfolding tragedy with surreal repetition. Here’s Candace, going to work long after everyone else – boss included – has quit. While the city crumbles and the death toll mounts, she moves into her Midtown office permanently. Subsisting on office snacks, she waits for more emails to appear and more assignments to materialize, though she knows they never will.
The “fevered” who haunt Candace’s eventual exodus to the Midwest are less ravenous zombies typical of the genre, more mindless busybodies of late capitalism. Having lost consciousness, their bodies repeat simple tasks until flesh drips off bone. The results are comic, absurd scenes, pantomimes both grotesque and beautiful. A sales assistant folding cashmere sweaters in the window of a Fifth Avenue boutique, jaw missing. A hollow-eyed office worker clicking the mouse endlessly, sending nonsense emails to clients, until he’s dragged away by masked paramedics. “It is a fever of repetition, of routine,” Ma deadpans.
It’s a rare moment when Candace’s aspirations towards something else shine through this parody of the working life. The clue Ma gives us isn’t found in the other half of the novel, the post-apocalyptic wandering through the brand name detritus of America. What Candace finds there is just as empty, unsatisfying, and creepy as time in the office. The cult of work versus, well, an end-of-the-world cult. What’s the difference?
Instead the key moment comes in a dreamy, slightly argumentative after-hours conversation with her (now ex-) boyfriend at a spot in Bushwick. During a superstorm during the pandemic (disasters multiply, in Ma’s telling), she voices something familiar to each of us: “It took a force of nature to interrupt our routines. We just wanted to hit the reset button. We just wanted to feel flush with time to do things of no quantifiable value, our hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money.”
There, buried in nonchalant language, in the same stock phrases we’ve all uttered, is the conversation our generation has been endlessly having, the late-night truth of our time. Our jobs wear us out, work flattens our passions, cities grind us down then push us out, social roles trap us like glue. Even love mostly just stresses us out. To feel flush with time. Time unstructured by the thousand obligations and expectations placed on us. It’s our ultimate desire, the thing we’ve never had, pushed from one stage of life to another, always rushing to get our shit together, while the world around us ricochets from one crisis to another.
When I put down Severance, I immediately picked up the other book it brought to mind, one I’d first read a couple years ago. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, published in 2014, is another best-selling novel featuring a global pandemic bringing civilization to an inglorious halt. Those eerie parallels are here too: an illness that spreads via international travel, nurses falling sick in overwhelmed ERs, ventilators and incubation periods, the stockpiling of toilet paper.
Station Eleven is elaborately composed, stitching together a host of characters whose stories subtly intersect as the book switches between multiple timelines and points of view. Kirsten is arguably at its center, a young actress whose childhood was cut short by the deadly “Georgia Flu.” Staggering, unremembering, through a traumatic adolescence, she joins the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic troupe of artists, musicians, and actors who perform Shakespeare for the handful of settlements they encounter. “Because survival is insufficient,” their motto reads, cribbing from Star Trek.
There’s nothing flashy in St. John Mandel’s end of the world. No gore, no hordes, no chaos. We hear about “the collapse” only in the fitful memory of those who can remember anything at all. The terror of the apocalypse is muted, so as to bring out its melancholy. Station Eleven reads as a book of sadness, a chronicle of loss. Kirsten and other characters replay memories again and again, hoping to summon lost souls and bring meaning back into their own foreshortened lives. The deserted landscape of the Great Lakes region reflects emptiness and silence back at the Symphony: broken, overgrown remnants of an expired way of life.
When it first came out, critics praised Station Eleven for beautifully dramatizing the significance of all the modern wonders we take for granted (pharmaceuticals, the internet, oranges whenever you want them). Even more so, for showing how precarious this arrangement is – a miraculous but fragile web that could be “so brutally interrupted” in months. It’s fitting that Kirsten’s destination is known as the Museum of Civilization, an airport terminal turned reliquary for iPhones, designer shoes, newspapers, passports. By stripping us of the familiar, this reasoning goes, the book helps us better appreciate what we’ve got.
Reading the book again, I come away with a different sense entirely. While it’s more understated than Ma’s exaggerated satire, a critical element isn’t lacking. There is no happy character, past or present. Instead, all we see are dashed dreams, unrealized passions, aimless drift, failed marriages. “This was actually the main difference between twenty-one and fifty-one,” the outwardly-successful Arthur laments well before the Georgia Flu, “... the sheer volume of regret.” Then there’s the inconsolable Miranda, whose only ambition is “a life where the moments of emptiness and disappointment are minimal,” but for whom even this humble dream is out of reach. (No need to recap the horrors of the post-pandemic world. Happiness is fleeting there too, as scarce as gasoline.)
Contra a reassuring gratitude for civilization, I don’t read Station Eleven’s artful sadness as an artifact of the collapse but of the regret already present in everyday life. Whatever painful absences brought by the pandemic, there was already deep disappointment pervading the before. In St. John Mandel’s sleight of hand, it takes the removal of modern comforts for her characters to see what was lacking in their lives all along. As the power clicks off and the last airplane takes flight, the emptiness of it all becomes undeniable. Is this really what we’re supposed to be nostalgic for?
A short scene, so brief and inconsequential to the plot that it barely registered at first. Clark, an executive coach before he became the curator of the Museum of Civilization, interviews a young office worker in Midtown about her boss (“a joyless bastard”). She turns the tables and grills Clark on whether he truly believes in his work. “Adulthood’s full of ghosts,” she says cryptically, but what she means is clear enough. “You go on like that,” she continues, “looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”
“That’s what passes for a life,” the young woman concludes. “That’s what passes for happiness.” It could be Candance speaking, holed up in her Manhattan office, days away from the pandemic. It could be any of us speaking, holed up in our apartments, under indefinite quarantine. It is us speaking – and with growing boldness. If this is what passes for a life, maybe we ought to let it pass.
Are Severance and Station Eleven dystopian? Only in the sense that they dare depict the real circumstances of our lives. Their fictional apocalypses cast a trembling light on what was already unliveable in this world, well before the pandemic threw everything into question.
In fiction, it often takes the end of the world to make characters question how they had lived up until then. Likewise, it takes an external shock to reveal the arbitrariness of something as omnipresent as capitalism. Now, like the protagonists we are, we have been given an opening to ask what lies beyond it.
I don’t think we can expect easy answers from books, even ones so clearly made for the present moment. They don’t tell us how to navigate the catastrophe or how we should remake our lives once it passes. But their resonance can have meaning. To see, in the midst of confinement, just how confined we’ve been. To acknowledge not some past that has been lost, so much as the future that has been stolen from us. To gather the courage to live into the unknown, without the promise that it will be better.
One day, this fever will break. We’ll be left with the question of whether we’ll go back to our old lives, or if we’ll set out for something new, something braver.