With all that’s going on today, it’s easy to nostalgically reflect on 2012 or 2013 as less chaotic and technologically overwhelming. The deluge of tweets and posts, viral memes, doom-and-gloom news, and content creation seems endless. Each passing year, it’s the same and different. There are so many directions in which to look.
The accumulating tumult of information and gadgetry is front and center in Alexandra Chang’s debut novel, Days of Distraction, which follows a Chinese-American tech reporter who moves from San Francisco to Ithaca, New York, with her white boyfriend, J, in the early 2010s. Before the cross country journey, she is denied a raise time and time again, despite the calming assurances of her editors that she is one of the best writers on staff. Her best friend at the office, a photographer named Jasmine, is one of the few other people of color employed by the publication. After arriving in New York, the protagonist and J adopt a dog and cat. When she grows unhappy with Ithaca and her relationship, she opts to visit her alcoholic father for a few weeks in Zhuhai. The protagonist’s name, Jing Jing, is used rarely; on one occasion, buried in dialogue in the latter half of the novel, J addresses her as Alexandra.
The upfront reasons for her unhappiness, of course, are an oversimplification. It’s never just about work or romance. Chang’s protagonist, who is navigating the early career plights of her mid-twenties, is faced with a range of marginalizing instances from academic liberal micro-aggressions to blatant, intentional, violent acts of racism. She deals with an identity crisis that amalgamates a history of American xenophobia, family assimilation, interracial dating, and workplace sexism and racism. At a company meeting, after she realizes there are no Black employees, she thinks:
“How had I not noticed? I worry that somebody else in the room is just noticing this at the same time as me, that they are looking at the few of us who are different in the same way that we are looking at ourselves in that moment, as painfully not-them, as other. Or worse, I worry they are not noticing anything amiss at all.”
Distractions are often not innocuous. Chang reveals how this lack of noticing occurs every day. There’s always a new job, a new device, a looming deadline, the bountiful applications, something big or small to draw attention away from underlying societal problems. For J, it’s applications to graduate school and long hours in a lab experimenting on mice with genetic deformities. He is mostly clueless and privileged. When the protagonist asks J to read several articles analyzing the dynamics and complexities of interracial relationships, he spends weeks using work as an excuse for avoiding them. It isn’t until after Alexandra leaves for China and the integrity of their relationship is at risk that he makes the effort. In other words, he consciously elects to be distracted or busy until it no longer becomes tenable.
The protagonist also worries about the commonality of their pairing and what dating a white guy says about her. She notes, “The racial matchup was so common in San Francisco, it was easier to ignore, unless, that is, we had to walk directly by a pair where the man had the exact coloring as J, the pale skin and the brownish hair, both with a tint of red. And this did happen more than once or twice. At least five times.”
In considering her choice of partner, the protagonist follows her journalistic instincts and buries herself in research. There are more than enough biographical parallels between the author and her protagonist to wonder whether Days of Distraction falls under the umbrella of autofiction, but it is the essayistic prose and the well-spaced block paragraph signature of online content that gives the novel its contemporary, memoir-like sensibility. Chang’s prose, using first-person point of view, reveals Alexandra’s sharp and critical interiority, but maintains a reporter’s sense of distance, an obligation to factual representation. The novel is filled with interjections of Pew Research studies, biographies, and problematic quotes from revered newspapers and magazines. The protagonist’s research focus on gender, race, and ethnicity organically becomes central to thinking about her personal and professional dilemmas.
If there are any hiccups, it’s that the novel is slightly weighed down by a lengthy and sluggish middle section. Once they arrive in Ithaca, much of Alexandra’s time is spent trying to adapt to her new surroundings alone while J is off at the lab. She has a part-time news aggregation job, the pets, and exploring the city to occupy her time, but it takes a while for her to grow so frustrated with her predicament that she decides to leave. This waiting period is necessary and well executed, but perhaps pumps the brakes too hard between the more energetic first and last acts.
Days of Distraction masterfully complicates the many harmful ways in which societal rage is placated daily, no differently in 2013 than in our past or current moment. If there are more distractions now, the issues we are distracted from—workplace othering, wage disparity, racism, the wide-ranging shortcomings of hipster liberalism—remain as prominent as ever. It’s no easy feat to present these issues using bountiful evidence within an expansive work of fiction. Chang does this expertly. Her debut is a reminder that the novel can show and tell, convey story and social message, and dare the reader to participate in their own upheaval.
Days of Distraction
By Alexandra Chang
Published March 31, 2020
Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the Southern Review of Books, and the Southeast Review, as well as the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Boulevard, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast online, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com