The narrator is a 25-year-old Chinese American consumer technology reporter for a TechCrunch-like online publisher, and her job depends on keeping up with the gadgets and glib lingo of Silicon Valley. But when her longtime boyfriend, J, who is white, decides to apply to biochemistry PhD programs around the country, she’s faced with a dilemma: stay in San Francisco, where she feels at home, or light out with him for the college town or midsize city where he might land.
Around the time J’s acceptances roll in and the possibilities of places like Pittsburgh and Nashville present themselves, a scandal erupts at the narrator’s workplace when the white managing editor uses the n-word when talking about rap lyrics during a story meeting. The few people of color on staff are horrified but keep quiet, save for one Indian American social media associate who live-tweets it all. After Twitter blows up, the tweeting staffer’s bosses whisk him into an office, and the earlier tweets are deleted, replaced by an explanatory thread, with apologies all around.
The incident leaves the narrator dismayed. Soon there’s a round of layoffs, and though she survives, management fires a Latinx friend for being a bad fit “culturally.” All of this spurs the narrator to take an even closer look at tech, the shifting Bay Area ethos and her own identity, in the workplace, and increasingly in her five-year relationship with J. Was she really going to quit her job and move to some homogeneous place without any prospects? To be the trailing partner of a white guy who, for all his good qualities, could be obtuse about race? “The word — trailing,” Chang writes, “evokes a rolling suitcase bumbling along behind somebody, its wheels getting stuck in divots, its body toppling over as it runs into bumps along the path, a dead weight that needs constant pulling, adjusting, and care.” But the situation at work worsens, San Francisco feels as if it’s “going to the bros,” so when Cornell and Ithaca call, the narrator says, “Let’s go.”
“Days of Distraction” is written in half-page to page-long blocks, a form, with echoes of Jenny Offill’s similarly titled “Dept. of Speculation,” that both reflects and caters to our distracted age. Alongside the narrative fragments are blocks of information: data from the Pew Research Center about interracial marriage, a racist Urban Dictionary definition of “Asian Driver,” a pamphlet from the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, biographies, interviews, court documents, Reddit threads, OkCupid FAQs, dozens of newspaper and magazine articles about discrimination, especially against Chinese immigrants, over the course of American history.
This mosaic structure, combining tesserae of research with narrative episodes, perfectly reflects the moment. The story is fractured, like our attention, our nation, our relationships; the information looks like the snippets we consume: Facebook posts, tweets, Google results. But for all its formal interplay and textual shifts, the novel is also, somehow, a cohesive, thoroughly absorbing read. It’s a mixed marriage of new forms and old that captures modern life then shapes it into something artistically abiding.
The unifying element is point of view: By creating such a smart, thoughtful, funny, observant narrator, and taking us on a familiar arc of leaving home, contending with new surroundings, reconnecting with the past and negotiating a crossroads, Chang achieves the opposite effect of distraction culture. Unlike Facebook, the narrator is not trying to curate a flawless image of herself to be envied or admired; unlike Twitter she’s not pledging absolute fealty to a chosen group. This is an immersive, emotionally honest novel that thinks through our era’s complexities, histories and divisions; it wanders into the gray areas, and wonders where the path forward might be.
Porter Shreve is the author of four novels. He directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Days of Distraction
By Alexandra Chang
Ecco. 320 pp. $26.99