- 21 Feb 19
We Are The Hollow Men
Though it wears the thin disguise of an apocalyptic novel, Ling Ma’s debut is really one concerned with modern identity and its ultimate futility. Shen Fever takes hold of the world, a disease that reduces its victims to shuffling shadows of their former selves, endlessly repeating mundane tasks. Candace Chen decides to remain in her thankless publishing job, flogging bibles, long after most of New York is abandoned. Her boyfriend, protesting against the hopelessness of the gig economy he’s trapped in, is already long gone, but Chen finds it difficult abandon this part of herself, fearful that she’s nothing without it. The narrative switches between the present and the story of her immigrant parents and her mother’s difficult, and in many ways similar, search for identity, trying to hold onto the past in a new present.
When Chen finally leaves the city, she falls in with a group headed, with a nod to George Romero, for refuge in a Chicago mall, the main reason being the group’s leader, Bob, grew up there. Bob, an unlikeable chap, seeks safety in the familiar, in the most obvious symbol of the old capitalist system before the collapse. The group’s previous professional lives – P.R., I.T., etc. - all prove useless in this new world, they’re reduced to googling survival tips until the internet falls, not with a bang but a whimper. This coupled with Chen’s behaviour suggests the shuffling shadows were already there before the disease hit. If this all sounds like someone continually hitting you over the head with a placard – Shen Fever begins in the Chinese centre of electronics manufacturing! Capitalism will be the end of us all! Chen’s taking photos that no one will ever see! Wake up you consumer zombies! Modern life is rubbish! They’re just building the same society again in the mall! Don’t you understand? In six months we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose! – that’s because they are, but the book is a timely examination of immigration, dislocation, and desperation all the same.