Daily Spectacle — THE ONLY LIVING MILLENNIAL IN NEW YORK

By Thomas Moody

After a certain number of years living in New York, one of the essential customs to adopt is not wanting to continue living in New York for much longer; dreaming of leaving the city behind for the country, the coast, some small mountain town where the air is fresh, the rent is cheap and the roads are quiet. Another, complementary, custom is being sick to death of hearing about other New Yorkers’ dreams of doing exactly that.

Leaving the city for pastures cleaner and wider, in search of something more wholesome, more virtuous, to “get in touch with oneself,” is a trope that stretches all the way back to antiquity, to Athanasius of Alexandria’s Life of St. Anthony. In the fourth century, Athanasius wrote about a young, prosperous man-about-town and future saint, Anthony, who left the bustling Egyptian city of Alexandria — the New York of its day — for the desert and its vast expanse of nothing, in quest of spiritual awakening.

The “return to innocence” theme has shown great resilience and adaptability throughout the centuries. Perhaps the best-known contemporary version is Joan Didion’s 1968 essay, “Goodbye to All That,” in which the young writer finds herself bored with the manifold temptations that New York has to offer. She discovers that at the age of 28 “the golden rhythm was broken, and…I [was] not young anymore.” Indeed, a few year ago, a collection of essays featuring a diverse range of young female writers and editors was published under the title of Didion’s essay. Each piece had a different slant on why putting the New York skyline in the rearview mirror was the most prudent move to make.

To say, then, that a coming-of-age story of a young professional — apathetic about her career and living in a trendy New York neighborhood (Greenpoint) with her semi-employed writer boyfriend, who wants to leave an over-gentrified city for the cheaper, more authentic Pacific Northwest — is risking cliché would be a gargantuan understatement. Luckily, Severance, Ling Ma’s brilliant new novel, tells this exact story, but with so much more. Severance is also an immigrant story, a story about loss (of both culture and family), a veiled but powerful condemnation of our consumer culture, and, most implausibly, a story about a zombie-ish apocalypse.

Candace is a young, first-generation Chinese American orphan who finds herself working for a company that coordinates the production of specialty bibles. Much of the production for these bibles is sourced out to Southeast Asia, where the materials and labor are cheapest. With offices in Times Square, Candace spends her days in the belly of the beast — the center of the commercial universe — and her nights in her basement apartment in fast-gentrifying Greenpoint with her boyfriend, Jonathan.

Jonathan is working on his novel and occasionally freelance writing, but over the past year he has become increasingly disillusioned with New York. “Something along the lines of: the city…tedious and boring, its charms as illusory as its facade of authenticity. Its lines were too long. Everything was a status symbol and everything cost too much. There were so many on-trend consumers, standing in lines for blocks to experience a fad dessert, gimmicky art exhibits, a new retail concept store. We were all making such uninspired lifestyle choices. We, including me.”

Jonathan wants out of New York, meaning he wants out of his relationship with Candace, unless she commits to follow him. Candace, happy with her routine, does not want to leave New York. “Me, nothing really weighed on me, nothing unique. Me, I held down an office job and fiddled around with some photography when the moon hit the Gowanus right. Or something like that, the usual ways of justifying your life, of passing time. With the money I made, I bought Shiseido facial exfoliants, Blue Bottle coffee, Uniqlo cashmere.”

The insistence on naming brands has become an overused device in contemporary fiction. What began as an ironic nod to our brand-driven culture quickly turned into an empty trend, detached from any meaningful statement. Ling Ma, however, employs the tactic to devastating effect: Specific brands do not merely define the individual; rather, the notion of consumerism (in which brands represent a false freedom of choice) is the very basis of our civilization. When Candace’s parents first move from China to Salt Lake City, Utah, Candace’s mother’s homesickness is only eased in “department stores, supermarkets, wholesales clubs, superstores.”

Candace’s work means that she frequently travels to China. These trips are punctuated by shopping at outlets for cheap designer knock-offs or one-of-a-kind samples of high-fashion brands. They also fill her with a mass of memories from her childhood visits with her parents back in their hometown of Fuzhou. Candace remembers that one of her uncles, a driver for a local government official, washed his Lexus in the courtyard of his apartment complex every morning. “The Lexus is to Chinese communism what the Lincoln Town Car is to American democracy” her uncle told Candace. “Both look nice, but not too nice.”

On one trip, Candace purchases a stack of “spirit money”: fake money that is burned in honor of the dead, so that they may be wealthy in the afterlife. When she returns to New York, she sits on her fire escape and burns the money in a big ceramic bowl, along with pictures of designer clothing from fashion magazines, until she “watched the last luxury images burn and extinguish into ash, entering some other metaphysical realm where my parents feasted. As the fire subsided and the embers dimmed, I imagined them combing through the mountain of items, dumbstruck by the dizzying abundance. I imagined that it would be more than they would ever need, more than they knew what to do with, even in eternity.”

It is a searing indictment of our culture of unbridled greed and consumerism. It is no surprise, then, that when an outbreak of a strange fever originates in China, it finds its way immediately to New York; it is as if the chickens of our gluttony have come home to roost. “Shen Fever” is spread by invisible fungal spores that are breathed in by its victims. Symptoms are various but slow-moving. In the end, a sufferer is turned into something of a zombie: a mindless lump of body that goes through an endless repetition of asinine routines, such as setting the dinner table or trying on a dress.

The fever spreads fastest in New York, and Candace, with a unique immunity to it, becomes the last uninfected person in the city. Forced to flee, she hooks up with a gang of survivors who carefully roam the newly apocalyptic terrain on their way to the promised “Facility” located somewhere outside Chicago.

Ling Ma expertly weaves divergent themes into a fast-paced, powerful satire. She is a master storyteller and a seamlessly brilliant writer. If there was ever a reason to leave New York, it would be to escape an apocalyptic fever that sent its victims into a mind-numbing routine, a routine that might include staring at a screen all day, scrolling through an application of thousands of photos, checking emails, sending memes.

BRIEFLY NOTED

Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, Adrienne Rich (W.W. Norton)

Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) was a titan of American postwar poetry and thought. As one of the nation’s foremost public intellectuals, she championed a radical approach to feminism and antiracist activism. Essential Essays collects her canonical prose pieces, comprising critical, polemical and personal essays and public statements, including her famous commencement speech at Smith College in 1979, when she asked, “What does a woman need to know?” Her answer? “There is no women’s college today which is providing young women with the education they need for survival.” These essays, which include “Motherhood and Daughterhood” and “Voices from the Air,” are essential, particularly for our current moment. In 1997, Rich refused a National Medal for the Arts from President Clinton, writing to the White House that “the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration….The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate.” Rich went on to assert, “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored….In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” Perhaps if more of us demanded as much from our leaders as Rich did then, we would not find ourselves immersed in the current political climate.

ONLINE READ OF THE WEEK

The Red Right Hand Files — https://theredhandfiles.com/

Last week, the Australian writer and musician Nick Cave played to a sold-out Barclay’s Center in New York with his band The Bad Seeds. Cave is one of the most celebrated and prolific writers of the past 40 years, producing over 20 full-length albums, numerous film scores, three feature film scripts, two novels, a collection of poetry and a book of short plays. Despite his prodigious output, Cave’s fans have known little about the man beyond the mythic versions of the self he projects through his songs. Throughout his career, Cave has been notoriously adversarial with the press and hostile to interviews — one might suspect to protect the very notion of the “mythic rockstar” he so carefully curates. But lately his guard has begun to drop, particularly after the death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015, who tragically fell from a cliff in their hometown of Brighton, England. In the documentary One More Time With Feeling (2016), Cave allowed the cameras into the studio to film The Bad Seeds recording their latest album, and also, most amazingly, into the Cave family home.

The Red Right Hand Files, an online interview magazine in which fans of Cave can ask the singer directly any question they like, no moderator involved, seems a brilliant and unique extension of this newfound candor. Cave’s answers are considered, earnest and utterly revealing. They give insights into the rockstar’s writing process, his friendship with longtime collaborator Warren Ellis, and his plans for the future. Most beautifully, we pry into the thoughts, feelings and personality of an infamously reticent man. When Lars from Cologne, Germany, counted the words in all of Cave’s lyrics and posted the results to the website (“I” used 1,332 times, “you” 970, “I love you” the most common phrase, etc.) — explaining that he was prompted to undertake the task because he was “bored, terribly bored” — Cave wrote back,Dear Lars, I have printed your piece of writing in its entirety. Your efforts deserve as much. I have nothing to add, although perhaps I could talk briefly about the strange alliance between boredom and epiphany. Boredom is often dismissed as a lack of imagination — this is not true. Boredom is a signal that we are indeed imaginative creatures, and that the existential distress of being in a state of ‘blah’ is often the mind readying itself for the epiphany. In your case, Lars, you were ‘terribly bored.’ Boredom provoked you to action. You did your crazy statistics. You arrived at the conclusion that love is the essence of everything. By doing so, you have moved the world one step closer to its redemption. Congratulations! You are awesome!”