In his creative writing manual The Art of Fiction (1992), David Lodge dedicates an entire chapter to the use of lists. His main case study is a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night (1934), but he makes the larger point that “fictional prose is wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourse—letters, diaries, depositions, even lists—and adapting them to its own purposes.” This chapter was frequently on my mind as I read Zoe Ballering’s scintillating debut collection, There Is Only Us.
There is a definite sense of omnivorousness to her choice of subject matter. The book’s eight stories range from a retelling of Noah’s Ark to a bleak portrait of pandemic lockdown to a tale of a woman turning into a naked mole rat. But more directly, Ballering is seemingly never happier than when writing a list. Whether outlining a group of teenage misfits (“We didn’t care about anything the other students loved: homecoming, house parties, horoscopes, laser shows, lanyards, voting, veganism, volleyball, ESPN, Thespian Club, macro- or microeconomics”) or the casualties of a pandemic (“Everything was dying then—the restaurants, nail salons, and sporting events; the movie theaters, flash mobs, and fashion shows; the parks, the swimming pools, and all the people”), Ballering’s stories are constantly piling up objects and sensations, lending an odd sense of abundance to the sometimes bleak and inhospitable worlds they depict. The result is a kind of neo-Dickensian paradox: it is the age of reason, it is the age of foolishness; it is the age of consumerism, it is the age of being consumed.
One place you find lists, after all, is in retail catalogues. Multiple stories deal with the realities of our consumer society head-on. The narrator of “Is That Sweet?” is an advertising copywriter stranded in her flat in the middle of a pandemic lockdown. (The virus is never named, but the references to “Essential” personnel and characters’ lack of video-call-knowhow makes the situation obvious). Unable to interact directly with anyone or anything beyond the birds nesting outside her window, the narrator loses herself in the products she is tasked with advertising:
I sit in my office, which is really just a corner of my studio, and while I am writing I ready myself for the sharp beep of a package being scanned. Then I don my mask and rush to the door, but I can never catch the courier. Only the box remains. For a few days I delight in the novelty: a monogrammed eye pillow, gummies that Mary promised would make me thin, an immersion blender, a Hitachi Magic Wand, earrings made from the blue iridescent wing of a Filipino butterfly, fitness leggings, a Cajun spice set, and a blanket designed to look like a tortilla so that I can roll myself up and post a killer selfie using #quarantineburrito.
When I tire of these objects, I throw them in the garbage and then I knot the bag and leave the bag outside of my apartment.
This is, obviously, a very unhealthy way to live, and yet the narrator cannot see any way out. When she informs her mother via video call that “the world is full of horrors,” she receives the weary reply, “Yes … I know.” And though the story makes much of the absurdity of this middle-class pandemic experience, there is genuine emotion here, too. The story’s most moving moment comes when the main character starts to cry: “I can’t stop crying because I can’t start crying for the right things, and that makes me cry even harder. I sop at my face with the edge of the tortilla.” It’s a heartfelt sketch of a historical moment that many of us are still processing, executed with empathy and wit.
Following directly on from “Is That Sweet?” comes a second story with a copywriter protagonist, “Luz Luz.” Again, listing features prominently, but here the objects are disappearing rather than arriving. God, we are told, is “Marie Kondo-ing on a cosmic scale”—removing things from existence, starting with animals but quickly moving on to manmade goods in an ongoing act of “Antigenesis.” The narrator remarks that “It never occurred to us that God was still up there saying ‘Let there be toaster strudel’ and ‘Let there be semiopaque tights,’” but now it seems that the Lord taketh away instead of giving.
It’s a remarkable concept, taking the logic of this age of mass extinction and cheekily asking, “but what if it also applied to consumer goods?” The answer, it seems, is that people would finally take it seriously, until humanity itself is swept up in “the quotidian extinctions to which we’d grown accustomed,” leaving the narrator the last person on Earth due to a divine clerical error. From there, Ballering builds up a delightfully weird portrait of an empty New York City, haunted by spectral chat-show hosts that keep the narrator company as her world literally vanishes around her. It’s a dazzling scenario which builds to a raw and heartbreaking conclusion, and easily ranks among the finest entries in the collection.
As pointed as Ballering’s consumerist satires can be, they are not the only task to which she turns her facility for list-making. In “Mothers,” she employs it for the more traditional science-fictional purpose of exposition, with lists of facts helping to convey the nature of a society. The society in question is a future America in which a new inoculation has “eliminated the biological need for sleep,” and a group of parents has refused to have the new injection administered to their children. Ballering’s narrator is one of those children, now grown up and pregnant herself, but marked out by the “protest name” her mother gave her: Roya, “the Persian word for ‘dreams.’” Now, a story about refusing inoculation may ring understandable alarm bells for readers familiar with the horrors of the contemporary antivax movement. But when Ballering lays out the divide between the unvaccinated narrator and her vaccinated wife, a more complex portrait emerges:
I knew she would spend the rest of the night in the study, catching up. That was her role in our relationship. Inocs took more classes. Held more degrees. Worked longer hours. Nonocs found it nearly impossible to find high-level jobs. We were janitors, dishwashers, buskers, the takers of coats. We went to school on special scholarships and enrolled for a quarter-load of classes. We met beautiful women getting law degrees and surrendered ourselves. Housewives. Homeless. Brown stains on our front teeth or perfect smiles from our wives’ insurance. Inocs married Nonocs all the time. Honestly, I think we kept them sane.
Note the staccato sentence structure, the fragments of privilege and deprivation, all adding up to not a balance exactly, but a nuanced depiction of a complexly unequal society. This is not a story about heroic resistance to the tyranny of immunisation. It’s partly a story about how lack of access to inoculation holds back the narrator and those like her. It’s partly about how innovations under capitalism serve to reinforce exploitation rather than liberating us from it (the narrator states that “We had the time to be domestic. They had the time to work hundred-hour weeks”). Most of all, it’s about making a hard choice in an unequal society, and about living with the consequences of that choice. Roya ultimately decides not to repeat her mother’s decision; her child is inoculated. She reflects that “I only wanted everything for her because she was everything to me... to do that, I had to take away her dreams.” The disquieting premise may be a little much for some readers, but for those able to brave it, this is another moving and thought-provoking piece.
As with any collection, there are some stories that are less successful. “Substances: A School Year” takes the tropes of teen comedy and filters them through a group of adolescent neat freaks disgusted by the sticky secretions of school life. It’s amusing, but the first-person plural narration means we never quite get on any one character’s wavelength, and it’s difficult to work out at whom the story’s satire is actually aimed. Astronaut drama “&” offers a more straightforward character study of a pair of twin brothers, and while it’s all very polished and competently done, the premise feels rather commonplace for science fiction. At one point a character even remarks, “No one cares about astronauts anymore, but sibling rivalry—that story sells.” It’s one of a handful of moments when Ballering’s prose is just a little too self-aware for its own good. Even in the otherwise excellent “Luz Luz,” it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes when the main character declares: “I think it works better if you understand this as a loneliness story … Like the apocalypse as a metaphor for something else.”
Quibbles aside, There Is Only Us is a rock-solid debut from a writer who will surely continue to excel. At its best, Ballering’s work combines limpid human observations with the opacity of larger social and political dilemmas, making for stories that engage readers emotionally and challenge them intellectually. It’s hard to think of a better mode for contemporary science fiction to occupy, and if there are a few flaws worth listing, they are vastly outnumbered by the virtues on display.