BASS 2020/Pushcart XLV 2021: Meng Jin, “In The Event” from Threepenny Review #159

In the late summer of 2017, I moved to California after a year spent writing abroad. For much of my life I had willfully disregarded the concept of place, but something had shifted inside me and suddenly it was all I could see: how my body responded to and situated within a new climate, a new architecture, a new demography and geography. I’d mailed in my absentee ballot for the 2016 election from England; afterward I’d sunk into a lonely despair. It was supposed to be a time of joyful creation, but I felt totally alienated from my work, and spent most of my days, like many, reading the news and crying. Now I’m back in America. I was aware I had entered a new disaster scape. Writing “in the event “ was one attempt at navigating this disaster escape and of trying to find inside it a place of meaning and art.

Meng Jin, Contributor Note

Chenchen, new to San Francisco, is becoming more aware of potential disasters. Earthquakes, of course; now she finds out her boyfriend Tony’s office is in a liquefaction zone. “I didn’t know what liquefaction meant, but it didn’t sound good.” Yeah, it’s not. Then there are landslides and tsunamis. Tony gives her details on the potential for nuclear attack in their area: high. While she’s worrying about this, the wildfires break out. Remember the 2018/19 wildfires, the orange skies, the smoke? We’ve forgotten all about that, haven’t we, except the people who lost everything. Then comes the heat wave.

Hey, Chenchen, just wait ‘til 2020.

In the event of an earthquake, I texted Tony, we’ll meet at the corner of Chinaman’s Vista, across from the café with the rainbow flag.
Jen had asked about our earthquake plan. We didn’t have one. We were new to the city, if it could be called that. Tony described it to friends back home as a huge village. But very densely populated, I added, and not very agrarian. We had come here escaping separate failures on the opposite coast. Already the escape was working. In this huge urban village, under the dry bright sky, we were beginning to regard our former ambitions as varieties of regional disease, belonging to different climates, different times.

The story is somewhat familiar: Chenchen, control freak, tries to imagine and prepare for all sorts of disasters, and yet it’s the one she never saw coming that gets her in the end. Ain’t that always the way it goes.

But it’s the details along the way that make this story beautiful. Not just the details of San Francisco, but the details of family, of the past, even of Chenchen’s music. She describes how she and Tony have families that followed opposite reversals of fortune: his family went from rich to so-so, hers from poor to educated elite. There’s a Thanksgiving scene that was fun to read – and scrumptious – at this moment. But it’s the family interaction at Thanksgiving that sheds more light on Tony and Chenchen: a squabble breaks out, peaks, then fades away and everyone’s laughing and chatting again.

It was like a switch had been flipped. In an instant the tension was diffused, injury and grievance transformed into commotion and fond collective memory. I saw then how Tony’s upbringing had prepared him for reality in a way that mine had not. His big family was a tiny world. It reflected the real world with uncanny accuracy—its little charms and injustices, its pettinesses and usefulnesses—and so, real-worldly forces struck him with less intensity, without the paralyzing urgency of assault. He did not need to survive living like I did, he could simply live.

As someone from a family where every word and action included the warning, “Now don’t ruin Christmas,” I can relate.

Chenchen’s music, too, shows her desire for control, though I have to admit I have no idea what it is she’s doing. She calls it “electric folk songs with acoustic sounds,” but it’s dance music. Then, following the failure of the previous year, she went in a new direction. She describes the process and the reason for her technique, and I’ll present it verbatim, since I have no idea what she’s doing:

But I had the temperament of a conceptual artist, not a musician. Specifically, I was not a performer. I hated every aspect of performing: the lights, the stage, the singular attention. Most of all I could not square with the irreproducibility of performance—you had one chance, and then the work disappeared—which, to be successful, required a kind of faith. The greatest performers practiced and practiced, controlling themselves with utmost discipline, and when they stepped onto the stage, gave themselves over to time.
This was also why I couldn’t just compose. I wanted to control every aspect of a piece, from its conception to realization: I did not like giving up the interpretation of my notes and rests to a conductor and other musicians.
I wanted to resolve this contradiction by making music in a way that folded performance theoretically into composition. Every sound and silence in this album would be a performance. I would compose a work and perform it for myself, just once. From this material I would build my songs. If the recording didn’t turn out, I abandoned the mistakes or used them. I didn’t think about who the music was for. Certainly not for a group of people to enjoy with dance, as my previous album had been—I, too, had been preparing for celebration. My new listener sat in an ambient room, alone, shed of distractions, and simply let the sounds come in.

It’s that last thing about the listener sitting alone in a room that strikes me. It sounds like the storage room she decides will make a good disaster shelter, where she loads all the water and sleeping bags. She’s making music for disaster. “The song was about failure’s various forms.”

She’s also listening to disaster on audiobook. She plays the end-of-the-world novel on 1.5 speed, because she can’t wait for the end of the world to get here. Again, I can relate.

She gets a kind of warning of the disaster that will change everything. No flood, fire, or earthquake. But the warning seems like a mistake. Then, the night it happens, there’s a persistent beeping – “a high C”, and she would know, she has perfect pitch – that she can’t find. It’s a great penultimate scene, she and Tony trying to find the beeping device, removing batteries from clocks, smoke alarms, everything electronic, and yet the beeping continues, because that’s what a warning does, just before the end. In this case, as T.S. Eliot always knew, the end is a whimper that conveys a tragic acceptance. As with the book, she’s glad the worst has finally happened.

On a more personal note:  I read the entire story perceiving Chenchen as male. Maybe it was the rainbow flag at the beginning, plus my unfamiliarity with Chinese names (both male and female Chenchens come up on Google). It made the final disaster a little more striking, but otherwise had little effect. I wonder if I’m just not evolved enough to recognize subtle signs, or if we make too much of gender.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Chenchen strikes me as likely being some type of neuro-divergent person; she has a hard time shutting out sounds sometimes, to such an extent they nearly cause her a panic attack at one point. The world is too much with her in almost every way.”

The story can be found online in its entirety at Threepenny Review.

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