Sally Rooney is everywhere right now because her highly anticipated third novel was released on September 7th. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, the young Irish author reflects on Catholicism, Generation Y and the literary market. I enjoyed the novel and its precursor Normal People, but not as much as its debut Conversations with Friends.
In this book, the Covid-19 pandemic is an afterthought, affecting the characters’ freedom of movement and sanity in the end. Rooney cringes about global inequality, but is more interested in love and friendship.
It reminded me of two lesser-known millennial writers who are North Americans in the diaspora. These authors are wise with people and foreshadowed the Covid-19 with their premonitory fictions.
Although published in 2018, Chinese-American Ling Ma’s first Severance was clairvoyant in light of the pandemic. Set seven years earlier, it depicts a parallel New York in 2011, where Barack Obama is in power and the Occupy Wall Street movement is in full swing as a pandemic strikes.
Despite the veracity of certain reflections on the recent past, the text is also fabulous. It turns into the grounds of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories and even the zombie movie. Additionally, Ma’s novel is insightful on the impact of the disease. She imagines a virus known as Shen Fever, which starts in China and brings the world to its knees through quarantines, travel bans and massive deaths.
Severance’s young protagonist, Candace Chen, struggles to pay her high New York rent by working long hours in the Bibles department of a publishing consulting firm. Publishing may appear to belong to a cultured and relatively human branch of capitalism. However, Candace’s employer suffers the repercussions of his coolly acquisitive book-production tactics in the Global South.
One of the first warning signs of the chaos that will befall the company and the rest of the world comes when Candace receives bad news. From a supplier in Guangdong who sells semi-precious stones for a Bible his company sells to tweens, someone sends an email saying that workers have developed lung disease while breathing dust from gemstones. A lawsuit has stopped production. But Candace’s boss for this task shows little sympathy as the poor health of the workers affects his results.
Reacting to Covid-19, Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe broadened his theory of necropolitics to write with heavy satire on the negation of a âuniversal right to breatheâ in the neocolonial capitalist system. Ma’s description of workers’ pneumoconiosis in Severance artfully contributes to such debates, foreshadowing the precariousness of frontline workers.
Candace was born in Fuzhou, leaving China at the age of six to join her migrant parents in the United States. This means that she understands Mandarin and gains a greater awareness of the ruthless practices of the publishing company than her colleagues are unable (or unwilling to try) when they regularly travel on work trips to mainland China. There, Candace and her colleagues stay at the aptly named Moon Palace Hotel in Shenzhen. Not only is the hotel awe-inspiring, it is as far removed from its surroundings as if it were in space.
Candace is taken to visit a printer contracted out by her operations manager. This man asks Candace why one of the books he is responsible for printing, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is so popular in the United States. Seeing the caterpillar’s greed, the Chinese asks, “What lesson does this teach the children?” Eat without […] consciousness?”
One could ask something similar of the Westerners locked in the hotel. All are there for the manufacturing companies. They stay in rarefied places, far from Chinese realities, paying the local population at the lowest possible prices to produce the tchotchkes which they then sell at inflated prices at home in Euro-America. No wonder then that, in this globalized and grossly asymmetric system, a virus is able to cross continents and infect the world.
The creative story behind Saleema Nawaz’s Songs for the End of the World is that the Indian-born Canadian author had spent six years writing his fiction about the infection when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. . With the help of publisher McClelland and Stewart, the book was released at high speed in August 2021. This meant that Nawaz could count on an unfortunately better informed readership about pandemics than she had ever anticipated.
Nawaz’s carefully crafted novel explores a planetary tangle of lives caused by the spread of a particularly dangerous variant of the flu for children. Owen is a writer whose marriage has fallen apart, in part because he absolutely doesn’t want a baby. As the couple approach their fifties and his wife begins to hesitate about having children, Owen is inspired to write a villainous novel. In it, an imaginary pandemic selectively kills the youth of the world.
Another cause of the couple’s separation is his wife’s discovery that Owen is a lothario. The novel follows the threads of Owen’s recent affair with a much younger fan and his flirtation with a student years earlier. The fan and the student resurface at regular intervals. The novel’s finale revolves around Owen’s decision to embark on a boat trip with Sarah, a young editor he now flirts with. She is the single mother of a very young son who is vulnerable to this flu.
The three move away to escape the flu pandemic – and Owen’s newly stratospheric fame for predicting it. On board the boat, he does interviews and writes blog posts about the trip. His blog attracts letters from loving fans, snake oil drugs and magic spells to ward off the virus.
Nawaz’s publication subplot strangely anticipates recent events. In addition to Owen’s blog posts, forum threads, and assorted emails, the novel is punctuated by voicemail messages from Sarah’s boss. She rings to congratulate Owen on the successful rebirth of How to Survive a Plague. This disaster capitalist exclaims with barely disguised joy: âTerrible about the virus, of course, but what a glimmer of hope for us. Just as Nawaz is in demand for interviews because of the timeliness of his book, fictional Owen also faces a publicity tsunami.
As with Rooney’s novel, the discussion of celebrity in the Internet age is at the heart of Nawaz’s Songs for the End of the World. Meanwhile, in Severance, Ma delves into 21st century capitalism. Yet both Ma and Nawaz write keenly about the flow of literature amid the disruption and desolation of a global pandemic.
The columnist is professor of world literature at the University of York and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 10, 2021