Sally Rooney is everywhere just now because her eagerly-awaited third novel came out on September 7. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, the young Irish author reflects on Catholicism, millennials and the literary marketplace. I enjoyed the novel and its precursor Normal People, but not as much as her debut Conversations with Friends.
In this book, the Covid-19 pandemic is an afterthought, affecting characters’ freedom of movement and mental health at the end. Rooney gnashes her teeth about global inequality, but is more interested in love and friendship.
This got me thinking about two lesser-known millennial women writers who are diasporic North Americans. These authors are wise about people and foreshadowed Covid-19 with their prescient fictions.
Although published in 2018, Chinese American Ling Ma’s debut Severance was farsighted in light of the pandemic. Set seven years earlier, it depicted a parallel New York in 2011, where Barack Obama is in power and the Occupy Wall Street movement in full swing just as a pandemic hits.
Despite the verisimilitude of some reflections on the recent past, the text is also fabular. It veers into the terrains of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories and even the zombie film. What’s more, Ma’s novel is insightful on the impact of 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 mass deaths.
Severance’s young protagonist, Candace Chen, struggles to pay her steep New York rent by working long hours in the Bibles department of a publishing consultancy firm. Publishing might seem to belong to a cultured and relatively humane arm of capitalism. However, Candace’s employer experiences repercussions from its coldly acquisitive book production tactics in the global South.
An early harbinger of the chaos that is to befall the company and the wider world comes when Candace receives bad news. From a Guangdong supplier that sells semi-precious stones for a Bible her company markets at preteens, someone emails to say that workers have developed lung disease from breathing in the gems’ dust. A lawsuit has halted production. But Candace’s boss for this task displays little sympathy as the workers’ ill health gets in the way of her bottom line.
Responding to Covid-19, Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe expanded his theory of necropolitics to write with heavy satire about the denial of a “universal right to breathe” in the neocolonial capitalist system. Ma’s depiction of labourers’ pneumoconiosis in Severance contributes astutely to such debates, prefiguring frontline workers’ precarity as it does.
Candace was born in Fuzhou, moving from China at the age of six to join her migrant parents in the United States. This means that she understands Mandarin and gains greater awareness of the publishing corporation’s ruthless practices than her colleagues can (or care to try) when they go on their regular work trips to mainland China. There, Candace and her co-workers stay in Shenzhen’s aptly named Moon Palace Hotel. Not only is the hotel palatial, but it is as removed from its surroundings as if it were in space.
Candace is taken on a tour of an outsourced printer by its operations director. This man asks Candace why one of the books he is charged with printing, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is so popular in the US. Noting the caterpillar’s greed, the Chinese man asks: “What lesson does that teach children? To eat with no [...] conscience?”
One might ask something similar of the Westerners holed up in the hotel. All are there for manufacturing business. They stay at rarefied places removed from Chinese realities, paying local people the lowest possible prices to produce the tchotchkes they then sell for inflated prices back home in Euro-America. Small wonder then that, in this globalised and grossly asymmetric system, a virus is able to cross continents and infect the world.
The creation story behind Saleema Nawaz’s Songs for the End of the World is that the Indian-heritage Canadian author had spent six years writing her infection fiction when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. With the help of publisher McClelland and Stewart, the book was brought out at speed in August 2021. This meant that Nawaz could count on a readership sadly better educated about pandemics than she ever expected.
Nawaz’s carefully patterned novel explores a planetary entanglement of lives caused by the spread of a flu variant that is especially dangerous for children. Owen is a writer whose marriage has disintegrated, partly because he adamantly doesn’t want a baby. As the couple approaches middle age and his wife starts to waver about having children, Owen is inspired to write a spiteful novel. In it, an imaginary pandemic selectively kills off the world’s youth.
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 college student years earlier. Both the fan and the student resurface at intervals. The novel’s finale pivots on Owen’s decision to embark on a boat trip with Sarah, a junior publisher he is now flirting with. She is the single mother to a son who, as a toddler, is vulnerable to this flu.
The three sail away to escape the flu pandemic — and Owen’s newly stratospheric fame from having predicted it. Aboard the boat, he does interviews and writes blog posts about the journey. His blog attracts smitten fan mail, snake-oil medicines and magic spells for warding off the virus.
Nawaz’s publishing sub-plot eerily anticipates recent events. As well as Owen’s blog posts, message board chatter and assorted emails, the novel is punctuated with voicemail messages from Sarah’s boss. She rings to congratulate Owen on the bestselling rebirth of How to Survive a Plague. This disaster capitalist exclaims with barely-disguised glee, “Terrible about the virus, of course, but what a silver lining for us.” Just as Nawaz is in demand for interviews because of her book’s timeliness, so too the fictional Owen faces a publicity tsunami.
As with Rooney’s novel, discussion of celebrity in an online age lies 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 acutely about literature’s circulation amid the disruption and desolation of a global pandemic.
The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 10th, 2021