An Oasis from the Constant Noise of Life: Talking with Alexandra Chang

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Hailed by Kirkus Reviews as “a coming-of-age tale for the twenty-first century,” Alexandra Chang’s debut novel, Days of Distraction (Ecco, March 2020) follows a young Chinese American tech writer who quits her job and, with her white boyfriend, moves to upstate New York. The narrator soon finds herself in a crisis of how to continue at all as she questions her sense of self, her history, and her relationship.

A summary here, however, seems to miss the point. This is less a book of motion and more a book of stunning moments. Which is not to say the book lacks in movement literal or figurative—there’s a cross-country road trip, a flight from JFK to Macau, memories of a family’s variable economic class, uncertain swings in love. However, the book’s structure—the fragments, the white space—is what emphasizes these sharp, subtle, comic, intimate, often of-the-now observations. Like when the narrator offers this description of Ithaca: “This town is a giant Rueben sandwich from an eager old white woman with loose teeth.” Or, watching a guy sand a plank of wood, the narrator thinks she “might want to be the plank, waiting still and patient to be smoothed out. Or the wood dust, falling away from its former self.” One of Chang’s many gifts here is her ability to write grave doubt with focused prose.

It feels as if this interview took place over the course of many years. Alexandra and I went to the same MFA program and remain good friends. We have often had discussions similar to the one that appears below about the fragmentary novel: its history, its function, and how we might define the form.

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The Rumpus: Thinking about a life online, your narrator tells us: “Sharing and shouting isn’t the issue so much as the corruption of real time.” This comes early in the novel, and while I read I often thought of that idea, the “corruption of real time.” I started to think that the book’s fragmented structure related to this, that the fragments offered a way to salvage or redeem or defend “real time” by atomizing observations. Can you talk a bit about why you chose this form for the book?

Alexandra Chang: I like the idea of fragments as salvaging “real time.” What do you mean by “real time” though? Because the experience of time throughout the novel changes depending on the narrator’s situation and circumstances. (In that section, the narrator is talking about this inability to inhabit the present moment.) But yes, the fragmented form does make it possible to slow down the pacing—sometimes the reader and narrator are experiencing time at a really slow pace. Then there are other instances when the fragments almost mimic the experience of social media, where it’s faster-paced and disjointed.

The fragmented form felt right for this book because it’s malleable; it allows for disorder, abbreviation, clarity, silence, etc. It’s a form that dramatizes and externalizes the fragmented nature of life and thought. So maybe yes, in that way it’s salvaging “real time,” as in real life?

Rumpus: Agree for sure on the ambiguities of “real time.” Maybe more specifically, though, I’m thinking of “real time” as it relates to “consumer time.” A broader question would be about what place the novel has in a tech-first society, a frighteningly instant economy.

Chang: The more I’m thinking about it, the more I’m asking myself what I even meant by “real time” in the book. It could be, like I think you’re saying, a sense of time in opposition to “consumer time” of sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy. The narrator is overwhelmed by, and disdainful of, what she sees online, especially on social media, and the pressure to perform and sell herself to an audience in her job as a tech reporter, and as a person in the world. She finds the idea of a “personal brand” ridiculous, even though she sees how powerful it has become. And she’s asking herself: What kind of person am I? What kind of person do I want to be outside of this system?

As for the place of the novel in the tech-first society… I’m not sure. Novels are inherently long. There’s always talk about how our attention spans are shrinking, so novels are going to die. But that doesn’t seem to be the case thus far. People are still reading novels. I find that reading novels offer an oasis away from the constant noise of life.

Rumpus: That makes me think of the narrator’s attempt to write a novel within the book. I felt like the fragments represent for her how she’s experiencing reality, but also suggest that art-making is necessary for any sort of meaningful personal understanding when you are living in a world designed to distract you from whatever does not lead to a purchase. How did you see the narrator’s decision to try writing her own book?

Chang: I like how you’re interpreting it, although I didn’t necessarily know, going in, why the narrator was writing this novel. I put that doubt into the book, in that scene where she’s questioning why she’s collecting these moments in her life.

Similarly, I didn’t really know why I was writing the novel when I was writing the novel. The more I wrote though, the more it became clear that a lot of the sections were about the differences between the way she’s perceived (how the world sees her/wants her to be) and how she perceives herself (or how she wants to be). I do think that this private act of creating art, of this narrator writing on her own, and of myself writing on my own, is a way for her to carve out a space to actively try to understand herself beyond the limitations and constraints other people place on her. But she struggles with that process—there are many instances where she does behave as the world wants her to. My hope is that the story captures this woman grasping at being an authentic self, and her failures, her lapses into conformity and doubt.

Rumpus: Either we had this argument one time or I’m imagining it, but I remember us talking about a book, and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s a fragmented novel.” And you said, “No, it just has short chapters.” Here we are with a chance to be on the record. How do you define a fragment? And do you have a favorite fragmented book?

Chang: The term “fragmented” seems like it’s tossed around for a lot of different kinds of books. When I say fragmented, I mean on a structural level—like, there’s literally a lot of white space. It’s about playing with that white space, its silences, breaks, and the suggestions of what is missing.

There are many ways to characterize a fragment. Lydia Davis has this great essay in her book Essays One on fragmentary work (although the essay was originally published in 1986). She lists a bunch of different writers’ takes on the fragment. For example, there’s Barthes who called them “brief bursts.” Joubert considers them clear, isolated moments and Mallarmé considers them notes. So I’m kind of getting out of answering this one fully by saying: Read the Lydia Davis essay. Personally though, I think my fragments work with abbreviation and compression in some way. And what my favorite fragmented novels have in common is that they favor juxtaposition and associativity. They are often opposed to order (Lydia Davis calls it “distorting order,” by the way), both formally and in their stories. But they ultimately add up to a whole—whether or not it’s “cohesive” depends on the reader, I suppose.

Some favorites: Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, Pitch Dark by Renata Adler, and So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen.

Rumpus: You mention how important the white space is to the fragment. Can you talk about how white space operates in your book? What is being communicated in those absences?

Chang: The white space sometimes operates as jumps in time or thought, or as a way to collage seemingly disparate elements in the book. On a higher level, I like to think the white spaces also communicate the narrator’s silence, whether it’s a silence imposed on her from the outside or a silence that comes from within. Those absences and pauses also help to dramatize her doubt, her halting and uncertain attempts to piece together a selfhood.

An early example from the book: The narrator is trying to get a raise at work, but she’s being silenced by the higher-ups (silenced in the sense of ignored, that her words of request don’t have an effect, they don’t mean or do anything). She also self-silences and avoids (she thinks often of the raise, but does not bring it up or make her work known as much as she might want). Whenever there is a mention of this raise, it gets cut short; we get the white space. The build-up and continuation of fragments and white space, in that case, show the cyclical quality of life and thought as well.

Rumpus: I’m also thinking about how old this form is. Plenty of ancient texts could be described as fragmented. Yet the form lends itself well to representing these modern methods of communication. You include bits of Gchat and Slack and Reddit, and how you’re able to include these along with excerpts from Asian American Society: An Encyclopedia and old newspaper articles.

Chang: I do think the form has become more relevant and common in fiction partly because of how fractured our day-to-day experiences have become. I could be reading an article online while chatting with a friend while texting another friend while glancing over on Instagram while clicking on another article. There’s an easy analogy to be made between that experience and the fragmented novel. But like I said earlier, the fragmented form is malleable. It has a lot of different uses, and has functioned differently throughout history. Like with postmodern American writers who were rejecting linearity and cohesion post-World War II.

Honestly, I found working with fragments more manageable when writing. Plenty of fiction writers have found other forms and ways to convey how technology has infused our lives, so I don’t think fragments are necessarily the most appropriate for our times.

The form really does lend itself to folding in all of these different modes of communication—chats, texts, tweets, etc. It felt natural to put these various channels in, since that’s how most of us communicate these days. But I also noticed that when a chat is inserted into a novel, it calls attention to itself. An experience that is normally seamless in use becomes artificial on the page. In some cases I liked that artificiality, and in other cases I tried to insert these forms more naturally, to mimic the experience of going about your day and getting a text.

Rumpus: Shifting a bit, the book skillfully undermines the absurd optimism of the tech world with the narrator’s skepticism as a woman of color.

Chang: The tech world in the early 2010s was ridiculously optimistic. More so than now. There was this prevailing sense that these companies would solve all of the world’s problems with new software and gadgets and whatever. That definitely was not the case, and in fact, the tech industry replicated and exacerbated big problems—sexism and racism, for example—and created a lot of problems of its own.

The narrator of the book is somewhat on the outskirts as a tech reporter, but she sees how that optimism is often mirrored in her workplace. And that space has an added air of self-importance, because well, these journalists aren’t in tech, they’re the ones who are supposedly keeping the industry in line. Being a woman of color in either of those industries—most industries, really—it’s hard not to be skeptical of savior narratives.

Rumpus: This book has plot, but I know that’s not the featured device at work here. Is there anything you would like to say in defense of, or on the death of, plot in contemporary literature?

Chang: Plot is one tool among many available to writers. I don’t personally depend much on plot in this book or in my fiction in general. And often, when I read contemporary fiction that’s very plot-heavy, it feels kind of fake to me. Then again, I’m not great at creating super clear plot arcs—that sense of causality that people seem to define plot by—so maybe that’s my real issue.

Rumpus: I thought of the process of portraiture while reading. One part of the book that stuck with me is from when the narrator meets her father at the Macau airport: “There he is waiting for me, physically real, however rail thin. UC Davis baseball cap, sunglasses, leather jacket, Wrangler jeans, and his familiar fifteen-year-old Lucchese calfskin cowboy boots, still looking polished and new.” What do you like about portraits?

Chang: I love how portraits in fiction can build character outside of action. And I love how it’s both about the person seen and the person seeing. There’s a productive and lively tension in a good portrait. I also like how a few details can stand in for a lot more. In the case you mention, we’re learning about the dad through how he presents himself, in this outfit that’s very Western—so maybe he’s holding onto this American conception of himself while he’s in China. Then we’re learning, perhaps even more so, about the narrator’s perception of her dad—her initial fixation on his presence and thinness, then taking him in from head to toe. I like how a portrait gives one view of a person/people, and then raises questions about them.

Rumpus: What’s next? I’ve heard something about a book of stories?

Chang: Yes, I’m working on a short story collection which includes pieces from the last several years. It’s set to be published by Ecco in late 2021. I’m still figuring out what they share in common besides having all been written by me. For now: They feature Asian and Asian American characters who, in the wake of a loss, make attempts at connection and redemption.

Rumpus: Finally, I love the book’s title—Days of Distraction. There’s the sound of it, the repeating Ds, the shifting vowels, the definitive snap of the “act” in “distraction.” Also, the look of it—these two major words connected by a minor but needed preposition. We might expect from this book a focus on time, both personal and historical, a focus on uncertainty, doubt. Can you talk a little bit about how this title came to be?

Chang: I’m glad you like it! It took a while to arrive at that title. The earlier draft you read was called Distances, which was fine, but I knew even back then that I wanted to change it, to make it a bit more indicative of the book’s concern. At one point, my editor mentioned having a title that would speak to the particular time period in the narrator’s life, so I got very attached to that idea. I’m not great at titling in general. I made an incredibly long and messy list of options, oftentimes variations of the same words. For example, I also had Age of Distraction and a bunch of other titles with the word “days” that are too embarrassing to mention here. Looking back at the document now, it appears I was also obsessed with the words “delay,” “process,” “intermediate,” and “minor,” among others. I’m happy with the final title. And I appreciate your close read into it. I think that’s a sign of a good title—that one can read into it quite a bit, even if everything you’re saying about mine wasn’t a conscious intention on my part.

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Photograph by Alexandra Chang by Alana Davis Photography.


Alexander Sammartino is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at [email protected] More from this author →