In Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day, The 2020 is lost. In the novel, 2020 is not a year, but a rare live music venue in a post-pandemic world defined by social distance. A Spotify-plus-Xbox equivalent runs the 2020 out of business in an America that outlaws congregation for concerts or any other public event.
Pinsker’s novel was published in 2019, and for that reason, it requires a re-review in 2021. Pinsker anticipated in name and experience our pandemic year. With eerie prescience, her Nebula-award-winning novel captures the trauma of social distancing. Rosemary, one of two main characters, describes her first venture onto a bus—how she holds her breath walking down the aisle, flinches at the proximity of other bodies, notes the silence and suspicion of the other riders. She mentally measures and remeasures the social distance required between her and the passengers. She only feels comfortable eating at restaurants with tables separated by plexiglass dividers.
As I read these scenes, I flipped more than once to the copyright page before I trusted that Pinsker wrote the book before our pandemic. Rosemary’s response to social distancing echoes my own.
When she wants to “meet” friends, Rosemary drones in drinks and has Zoom-equivalent cocktail hours. Every morning, she logs on to her virtual work for an Amazon-equivalent, spends all day in her bedroom with her corporate identity, and then has to deal with the difficulty of shaking off work-to-home life in order to meet her mother in the kitchen.
And she’s never been to a live music show. Rosemary, now in her early twenties, was only eight when the pandemic hit and has rarely left the safety of her rural town let alone congregated in a group.
Through some strange coincidences, Rosemary finds a job seeking new talent for the ruling virtual music conglomerate; in this role, she encounters live music. After a few chapters, Rosemary’s account intersects with that of Luce, a middle-aged-musician, trying to keep alive the live music scene which was shut down just as she became famous. Rosemary begins to form real relationships, but her worldview has been so distorted that she ruins many of them—and Luce’s underground music venue, The 2020.
In Rosemary and Luce’s world, distance equals safety; maintaining distance is maintaining social norms and the rule of law. Proximity is danger; opposition to norms and laws.
But the arts require physical closeness. And in Rosemary’s world, it is the liberal underground arts community, not conservatives who rebel against anti-congregation laws.
Not only does the book accurately describe the bodily trauma many of us experienced in the past year, Pinsker’s novel also specifically shows the danger of social distance for the arts. Music and visual art need an audience. In our 2020, the government and healthcare system learned how to restructure social gatherings to save lives. But the pandemic devasted the live arts community. Live music needs bodies—bodies to show up and experience sound as physical vibration, as a motive to dance together. Visual artists too need an embodied viewer. One of the first rules taught in Sculpture 101 is to think about scale: how will a viewer respond to this work given its size in relationship to the body?
In the void left by physical gathering in the arts, digital music, video, and gaming industries have thrived in our 2020 just as they did in Rosemary’s America. To physically stay alive in Rosemary’s world and in our own 2020, required sacrificing arts that require bodies. Rosemary’s society faces a dilemma in choosing between physical and artistic life—what Martha Nussbaum has called “incommensurable goods.” Just as they cannot exchange friendship for money or freedom for money, they find they cannot exchange survival for culture.
The true trauma of the pandemic is in Rosemary’s alienation from other people—not only in the immediate trauma of hospitalization and fear during the pandemic itself.
Perhaps if I had read Pinsker’s novel in 2019, I would have been ever so slightly more prepared for the pandemic. I would not have believed her plexiglass-divided restaurants would become reality, but it might have helped to think through the consequences for relationships and the arts as I lived those changes. As a speculative novel, Pinsker’s story offers an opportunity to exercise our moral imagination: to ask, how we will maintain a fully human life in a world changed by, for example, pandemic, climate change, or space colonization? Such imaginative exercise trains us for what are potential evolutions in the human condition.
Ari Larissa Heinrich’s English translation of The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei appeared this June 2021, but the original was published in Chinese in 1996. Like Pinsker’s novel, The Membranes anticipates some of the psychological suffering of pandemic social distancing.
Ta-Wei’s main narrator, Momo, lives alone. She lives within a membrane of special skin, within her combo work/studio and apartment, and beneath the ceiling of the ocean. Like all humans in 2100s, she lives underwater because the sun has burned the earth’s surface until it is uninhabitable. Momo has grown up within the membranes; she can only vaguely remember being able to roam freely as a very young child. She communicates virtually and learns through ebooks—a prescient vision given that the story was originally written in 1996.
Ironically, Momo works as a dermal technician, essentially giving clients full-body facials. Yet the touch she provides does not truly connect her to those she sees because they are protected by a special artificial skin membrane. A few clues hint that Momo is an unreliable narrator, but it is only the last third to quarter of the story that reveals Momo’s identity and location are radically different; though some of the features of her post-apocalyptic world remain the same, much of Momo’s description turns out to be metaphorical. The surrealism of Momo’s homebound existence, however, captures the desolation of trying to connect to a world without physical contact with others. Taken at face value, Momo’s experience shares much with Rosemary’s and our own, sealed within the membranes of Zoom and Teams.
The Membranes alludes to then-trending film and literary theory, referencing Almodóvar, Altman, Lacan, and Derrida. The narrator tells Momo’s story as Momo reads her own story—like the simulacra and simulacrum of Baudrillard. Momo requires a pass partout, a Derridean motif. The story circles around Momo’s detachment from Mother, a fundamental figure in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
As the translator explains, texts like Ta-Wei’s grew in popularity with the lifting of martial law in Taiwan; new forms of experimental literature exploded in the early 1990s—when Taiwanese people were free to come together. With this congregation, the arts flourished in a new way.
These two speculative novels bring us into possible worlds conditioned by social distance. Rosemary and Momo desire something they have hardly experienced—physical closeness. Even as they desire it, they have been so conditioned to avoid it, they can hardly enjoy it when it is offered. This is the process we must work through post-2020.
Ta-Wei, Chi. The Membranes. Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich. Columbia University Press. New York, NY, 2021. https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-membranes/9780231195713 Pinsker, Sarah. A Song for a New Day. Berkley, New York, NY, 2019. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/598452/a-song-for-a-new-day-by-sarah-pinsker/