What would we do if the end of the world were near? Probably nothing. If a virus originating in China threatened to end life as we know it, we would continue to methodically comply with office hours. This is how Candance Chen, protagonist of Settlement (Today’s Topics), the novel in which the American author Ling Ma posed an apocalypse dominated by irony and routine, anticipating two years of some debates that are beginning to take shape after the coronavirus crisis.
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When Ling Ma won the Kirkus Prize in 2018, the idea of an unknown disease that would put the productive system in check was a heritage of fiction. Now, the translation made by Munir Hachemi and edited by Temas de Hoy (Planeta) reaches Spanish bookstores in a very different context: COVID-19 has caused more than 500,000 deaths and millions of people around the world are already suffering the effects of the economic recession. If governments and citizens underestimated the possibility of a global contagion months ago, the same happens to Candance, a ‘millennial’ for whom Shen Fever, a fungal infection originating in southern China, is initially an obstacle for which requests from Hong Kong they don’t arrive on time. Diligently fulfilling her job as coordinator of the bible section at an editorial production company, she ends up becoming the last uninfected inhabitant of New York.
“Because the initial symptoms of Shen Fever are often confused with those of the common flu, many patients do not know they have contracted Shen Fever,” Candance reads in a brochure that may well allude to the coronavirus. Although the parallelism ends there, because in a matter of weeks, those who contract Shen Fever irreversibly lose cognitive and motor faculties until “leading to a fatal loss of consciousness”. They become a kind of zombies harmless, families who sit at the table over and over again, shop assistants who continue to fold shirts in an infinite loop, taxi drivers aimlessly driving through the Big Apple. Candance gazes at them ecstatically while documenting a ghostly New York, until she is forced to search for other survivors.
An ode to nostalgia and uprooting
Unlike other dystopias, Settlement It takes place on a specific timeline: Fall 2011, when hundreds of protesters were protesting in front of imposing Wall Street offices. While a few defied the system, most New Yorkers spent their days trying to survive it. “I don’t want to find my life every hour of every day to pay the rent,” regrets Jonathan, the protagonist’s partner. He sees the pandemic as the ultimate reason to leave an increasingly inhospitable city, fed up with gentrification and abusive prices. For Candance it is not so simple. As a second-generation migrant, he finds it difficult to abandon what his parents fought so hard for when they arrived from the Chinese province of Fujian: a life supposedly full of opportunities.
Because New York, as one of the characters in the novel says, “belongs to migrants.” Away from the metropolis, while trying to adapt to a group of survivors who Google on how to make fire and are led by Bob, a man who “had played each edition of Warcraft with an almost religious fervor”, Candance escapes with his memories and those of their parents.
In alternate chapters, he remembers his arrival in New York “on the back of the stream of others” after graduating from college, advice for good facial care from his mother, who “practically made up a life in America praying” and the “emotion tinged with hopelessness” caused by Fuzhou, the city he left with six years to live in Utah. There also grew the author of Settlement, which like its protagonist is originally from a city in the Fujian province, Sanming. For Ling Ma, the end of the world serves as a pretext to evoke the uprooting, nostalgia and loneliness of the Chinese diaspora.
Rethinking our impossible systems
In Pandemic, essay published shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek alerted of the “sad fact that we need a catastrophe to be able to rethink the very basic characteristics of the society in which we live”. Precisely, Ling Ma invented a catastrophe to ironize about the metropolises in which we barely manage to live and the industrial relocation from which the goods we consume are born, including the Holy Bible.
Candance, who dwells on the idea of New York more than the real New York, accepts that living in a city is “propagating and being part of its impossible systems.” And also enjoy them. We have seen it: in late capitalism many find it inconceivable to give up Glovo or Uber Eats and stop acquiring products that are not essential, even if the context is the greatest health crisis in a century.
Settlement It was written between 2012 and 2016, and its author has been reluctant to promote the work during the coronavirus crisis. “Reality always surpasses fiction,” he said in an interview. with the magazine Domus at the end of may. “During this time, what has surprised many of us is how reality seems to adhere to the catastrophe movies or to some cultural debris that we have seen before. The photos of an empty New York seem to come from an apocalyptic movie that we only remember a little But we’ve definitely already seen it. The hype we thought could only happen in fiction – like the US leaders who advocate that human lives be sacrificed in favor of the economy – is happening in real life. ”