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An ideal employee

Akil Kumarasamy’s debut novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, offers a fresh portrait of female disaffection

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September 7, 2023

Whither the female slacker? As a 2009 essay at The Point magazine put it: in modern pop cultural representations, her “pure slackerdom is always compromised for those traditional female virtues: domesticity, popularity, the responsibilities of family and/or work.” Or else, she is faintly repulsive, psychologically stunted: daughters of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath such as Dee Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Lindsay Bluth from Arrested Development (today one could add Alex, from Emma Cline’s 2023 novel The Guest). These poison-tipped female slackers chase get-rich-quick schemes and sham relationships to excise the need to hold a job—and lack the uncomplicated appeal of playful, charming male layabouts positioned as mascots of a vaguely antiestablishment, agenda-free idleness, guys worthy of our affection, even our love: Ben from Knocked Up, Peter from Office Space

Then came Lena Dunham’s Girls. Onscreen, Dunham’s “unmade face” and “dimpled thighs” remind that “slackerdom can, in fact, take on a radical quality,” Hermione Hoby wrote in a 2012 essay for The Guardian, a rejection of certain societal imperatives for women. Yet, Hannah Horvath, mired in despair at the mismatch of her perceived genius with the world’s treatment of her, became an emblem of a different narrative problem—on the outs with a world she suspects she should dominate. Here was a striver’s tale in the guise of a slacker’s. What does this figure really have to offer us, other than schadenfreude? “Peak female slacker,” diagnosed a 2022 ArtReview essay, meant our tales of female ennui were too often enacted by young, white, cishet, materially secure, creatively ambitious women. That essay groups Hannah with peers of varying work ethics, but undeniable appeal: the effervescent Julie, of the 2021 film Worst Person in The World, who exits the marriage plot to re-envision herself as a serious photographer; Alana, of the 2021 film Licorice Pizza, a dazzling woman-child who can’t figure out what she’s meant to do; and, the only nihilist among them, the unnamed woman who decides to drug herself to sleep through a year, in Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Where Hannah at least could claim radically dimpled thighs, these rebels are all attractive, not to mention thin. Moshfegh’s antiheroine pointedly so —“a young, tall, thin, blond, beautiful woman whose physical appearance functions as a near-comic disguise for her laziness, uselessness, and misanthropy,” as Jia Tolentino had it in The New Yorker . “I’ll write a book about a woman that looks like a model,” Moshfegh said to The Cut in 2018, explaining her strategy to code her thematic ugliness to garner critical and market appeal. “Try to tell me she’s disgusting!” 

The slacker is perhaps confused for her more radical cousin, the loser.

Why care about this figure? Paralysis turned Hamlet into a vessel for insight. But a woman who doesn’t participate seems even more primed to teach us. The repudiation of life by members of a group perceived as life-giving (as well as invisible but tireless, ultra-capable but unsung, helpmates to all) suggests the ultimate confrontation of the human project. This might explain the online flurry about popular conceptions of so-called female slackers: to accord the status to women who actually quite like, or simply demand more from, a world that in many ways works for them, is to mute the philosophic potential of the identity. 

The problem seems partly lexical: the slacker is perhaps confused for her more radical cousin, the loser. “People are so terrified of the idea of failure,” the novelist Nicole Flattery recently said in regard to her penchant for writing bitter, unattractive, odd, “loser,” female characters. Losers can cross into that outer space, where Beckett’s Molloy lives, “the stigmatized or marginalized existence of the beggar,” as a LitHub essay on “loser lit” puts it—or even the sacred exile of the sage. Their lives offer starker censure against systems that organize society: capitalism, marriage, child-rearing, a need to appeal. But women in these narratives can often seem merely to be failing at the race, whether they are protagonists, like the “radical loser” who anchors Chris Kraus’s novel-turned-miniseries I Heart Dick, “a professional failure as a film-maker, as well as a failure as a conventionally attractive object of desire”; or tragic bit player, like the daughter from an older American classic, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, who according to her father’s account, loses the delicacy of her physicality, her feminine beauty, before she loses her ties to society and becomes a dangerous conspiracist. Female slackers run the race at their own pace, losers simply fail out. But surely there’s a softer exit, captivating to behold, like watching someone cross a border into another dimension. 

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It’s possible to see another option in Aya, the young, racially and physically indistinct Queens, NY, misfit at the center of Akil Kumarasamy’s debut novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea. A coder, she has been hired to train AI for a company called ML Consulting, “in only a partially exploitative system, with health insurance benefits that ensure your body can continue working,” Aya tells us wryly a few pages in. Kumarasamy may not seem a natural fit in high-volume pop culture discourse. Her first book, the 2018 collection Half Gods, told stories of Sri Lankan refugees on either side of lives in America, blending mythic references and high-flying lyricism with a keen eye for quotidien detail. (Kumarasamy is herself ethnically Tamil, raised in New Jersey.) Meet Us, out now in paperback, feels closer to a coming-of-age tale in the line of contemporary stories of young, disaffected women. Set in the near future, the novel stitches together transcriptions of narrations by people Aya confronts in her search for meaning: Sri Lankan medical students from the 1990s, her dead mother, a soldier from a depressing reality TV show her housemate and first cousin Rosalyn watches incessantly while at home, called Soldier’s Diaries. Aya’s sections, narrated in close second person, can feel dreamlike and willfully obtuse. “Your mother wanted to time travel and brush shoulders in another century with Claudia Jones and Emma Tenayuca,” goes one line. (How does Aya know this? Did her mother actually say “time travel”?)

But somehow, the obliqueness charms. Aya is adrift, sideswiped by her mother’s recent death, but also muted since childhood by the pressure of her mother’s contrarian views. A bone-dry sense of humor punctures bouts of searching prose, but Aya’s most intriguing quality is an openness to that peculiar line of troublesome behavior that gets people branded slackers and losers. In this world, job descriptions are monotonous in their submission to tech: training AI in a research hospital, working on AI for a delivery company. When a “futurist” consultant dressed in a salesman’s pinstripe suit visits Aya’s office to discuss a development project for the city, Aya seems archly removed, relating the experience in cool yet observant prose. He beams a vision of a bedroom in this projected, updated New York: sterile and technologically sophisticated, with smart blinds, among other features. A coworker of Aya’s, named Azizi, stands up. He is upset. “Whose future is this? I can’t imagine this girl’s room in my village. Please label it properly as a Western future.” 

Aya’s mother, the daughter of a backup singer and a postman father, stirred trouble too. She became a compulsive collector and creator of things that moved her: at the novel’s start we are greeted with the heavy vision of an ancestral house full of the dead woman’s prized belongings, still as they were when she was alive. Even the lightness of a photograph (of Thelonius Monk sitting in a Harlem apartment; she was a jazz aficionado) feels overwhelming in company with the rest of what Aya calls her mother’s “archive”: artifacts of jazz history, old rotary phones, withered flowers in vases, even cassette tapes on which her mother recorded her own dreams. “A devout internationalist and anti-capitalist,” her mother boycotted retail stores and dressed Aya in haphazard handknit sweaters. She considered a bird shitting on a car a cosmic act of protest, “nature striking back against modernity.” Whether or how she earned income isn’t clear, but a cast of relatives, including a nonbinary younger sibling, conjure a portrait of a progressive, tight-knit clan, grounded by a multigenerational American history that explains the house in Queens where Aya and Rosalyn live—Aya since birth—passed down through the generations from their great-grandmother.

Her contradictory view of herself makes her seem both unflappable and lost: “highly proficient and [with] little ambition…an ideal employee.”

As with the Tamil refugees in Kumarasamy’s Half Gods, Aya’s numbness can seem a product of inheritance. She wonders, late in the novel, if she is “drained of something vital” because her “mother planted her misgivings for the world” deep inside her. Aya is analytically gifted—her facility for grammar and algorithms led her mother to think she might become fluent in the Romance languages. Instead, while underperforming in college, she found herself late to register for her language requirement. She wrote a program to choose for her among the three remaining options and wound up with Tamil, a long-surviving classical South Indian language new to her. When the novel begins, she is back at MLC, after disappearing on an “abrupt,” grief-stricken, extended absence she took without permission. Her blank-eyed boss Petrov loads her down with double her usual amount of work, a covert form of punishment, she presumes. It’s hardly a shining moment, yet her contradictory view of herself makes her seem both unflappable and lost: “highly proficient and [with] little ambition…an ideal employee.” 

Meeting Aya, I felt a sense of recognition, at once thrilling and uneasy. Here was my paralyzed philosopher…or is she depressed, in need of help? It’s not that the normal pursuits don’t exist: later in the novel, Aya sleeps with a forgettable date and aborts a pregnancy, all in a dreamlike haze. But the classic plots of work and love, professional and domestic success, are not centered, explicitly or implicitly, as sources for meaning here. What elevates the book out of a depression fugue is its movement to a plane I’d not experienced in recent fiction: where labor is untethered from capitalism and companionship from romance. Call it a radical not-quite-loser’s life of the mind. 

This cerebral space opens up early: back at MLC, facing that doubled workload, Aya gets a message from her old Tamil professor, reminding her of a line from a manuscript she studied in college. There’s a way beyond mortality. She finds the document stowed under her bed and a different labor begins. She will translate in full the “joint memoir,” set down in the late 1990s by a group of female medical students on the Sri Lankan coast, studying as the country’s multi-decade war stretched on. They “wouldn’t want to immigrate to English,” she muses of the unknown, perhaps long-gone authors. Yet as she focuses on the shapes left behind, she feels “this undefinable need” to make them. 

Her cousin Rosalyn, a scientist who performs research in a lab focused on drugs that affect memory, is equally rebellious. Frequently the last to leave the lab (even, we learn, on her birthday), she is a bonafide workaholic. But she too turns elsewhere with her ambitions, casting out for volunteers for experiments of her own, to counter what she sees as an inevitable misuse of the science she is helping develop, in the larger world. Her aspirations are modest: she wants to collect human memories simply to build an archive, a record of soulfulness. But Rosalyn takes her extracurricular activities to a different level when she tracks down a houseless veteran from Soldier’s Diaries and moves him into their house with an idea to test a memory-altering drug on him that might ease his PTSD. (As far as housemates go, Aya and Rosalyn probably wouldn’t suit just anyone.)

Perhaps no one strays as far from the assignment as the medical students Aya transports into English, aided by video conferences with her professor. Even as they sit through “tedious” classes rooted in Western medicine, the young women, addled by the awareness of the war on their doorstep, privately develop a stance they term “radical compassion,” inspired by ancient Tamil practices and meant to unwind everyday disturbances: Western beauty ideals on TV, the way English dominates their comprehension of academic ideas, their indoctrination into a caste system. They fast, refuse to speak, meditate, “recalibrate [their] thoughts,” so they can dissolve their selves as they heal others. They shave their heads, study photographs of disfigured victims around the world, felled by atomic bombs and racist lynchings. One teacher asks that they stop mentioning the war. Instead, they watch TV news raptly, obsessed with the image of a young woman, a dead rebel fighter found on a beach who pundits later argue is an actress (“facts of the war were contested” as a rule, the manuscript relates). Then there are the segments on mass suicides of farmers drinking pesticides. “Please look at us,” a toothless man cries on TV, and the women do. They describe to each other horrors in detail, stories they’ve heard from relatives, of a “son forced to swallow his father’s knocked-out teeth before he had to swallow the barrel of a gun and three bullets,” of eyelids peeled back and eyeballs fed to fish. They cheat on their exams but study the words of the poet Joseph Brodsky on their own time, along with the tradition of the siddhars, ancient Tamil polymaths who developed an early form of medicine, and the yogic practices of the poet and mystic Tirumular. They not only tend to refugees at a camp clinic but also slice at each other in their dorm rooms to better understand the nature of violence. Eventually, “we knew how to empty ourselves in order to let someone else in and feel their pain so deeply until it was our own,” Aya translates. And they set down the document. “In the end, meaning was never the point. What we needed to convey was a feeling and it didn’t matter if it was etched in something as temporary as sand.” 

The nature of the actual Sri Lankan Civil War feels important, its murk and nightmarish persistence. Diasporic Tamil communities can seem to operate outside official reality, in a zone ruled by alternate stats and rumors about a conflict that continues to inspire torture and killings despite it technically ending in 2009. Kumarasamy seems to have found a way to illuminate the dark. The stuff of rumors is recorded—first in Tamil, then in English—thanks to students open to the conflict’s horrors, and a translator open to their account. The novel can itself feel aloof and impractical—anti-capitalist—built largely of transcriptions that deny a reader traditional conveniences of setting, plot, and physicality, yet ask us to venture into fantasy. So do its characters’ rebellions against familiar pleasures enact a rebellion against a reader. 

This defiance makes it exciting. Months after the novel left my hands, I found myself swept by sudden waves of “feeling,” as the medical students wanted, as with a dream that stays in the system. In my mental library, the novel sits on a shelf with The Houseguest, the eerie short story collection by Mexican writer Amparo Dàvila that seems sprouted wholly from the primal soil of dream logic. Again and again, Dàvila’s characters confront a danger that cannot be seen but is felt; Kumarasamy’s characters also live in a negative space, around invisible menaces. 

Aya feels herself to be stripped of something vital by this living around. An MLC coworker suggests that Aya means to defy mortality, comparing her to Aureliano, from One Hundred Years of Solitude, who through translation of the Buendia family’s chronicle becomes himself entrapped in “those timeless pages where death no longer exists.” But to seek to defy death would imply a love of life. Instead, Aya is that elusive turncoat. Neither nihilist nor schemer, she defects to a place where efforts are etched in sand. “It comforts you, all this accumulative uselessness,” she thinks, as she goes to bed after her first go at the translation, sure that no one will read what she produces. She finds purpose in the act alone.

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