On the surface, Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distraction seems like yet another work of semi-autobiographical literary fiction told from the first-person perspective of a young, urban professional. The narrator is Jing Jing (or Alexandra), a tech journalist and second-generation Chinese-American living in San Francisco with her White boyfriend J and her mother and siblings close by. At her supposedly forward-thinking publication, she’s struggling to get ahead (and get a raise), not to mention figure out the rules of the game in a profession dominated by White men. When J’s graduate studies require a move to Ithaca, NY, Jing Jing decides to go with him. The move becomes a catalyst for a good deal of ruminating on her part, and it is this meditation that makes up the majority of the book. This development is also what sets Days of Distraction apart from most other novels to which it bears some superficial resemblance: Jing Jing’s thoughts and (perhaps more importantly) thought processes about the move and its meaning(s) for her bring the character to uncommonly vivid life, and enable the book to speak distinctively to more than a few contemporary conversations. Chang gives us a lot to think over here, including micro- and macroaggressions, interracial relationships, neoliberal workplaces, the politics of Silicon Valley, institutional sexism, racism in America, transnationalism, and the increasingly thin line separating journalism from public relations. If Days of Distraction ends up having a lot to add to the ongoing discourses about these and other subjects, a big part of that has to do with how well written it is. For instance, quite a lot of ink has already been spilled about the book’s daring structural gambit: it is organized into short passages that veer from topic to topic — sometimes in a linear way, but not always — in much the same way that our thoughts and attentions tend to hop around in the Information Age. I’ll add my own voice to the chorus. Chang wisely avoids imitating this erraticness, which would likely make for an often frenetic and thoroughly frustrating reading experience, and instead opts for evoking it in a way that is both intelligible and artful; just in terms of how effectively it puts us into the narrator’s head, Days of Distraction is singularly astonishing. The content of the novel, though, is every bit as salient as the form: the author brings a keenly perceptive eye and veracious analysis to her storytelling and characterizations. In particular, her depiction of the world of online journalism in the Bay Area is piercingly sharp and includes spot-on asides about everything from open-concept offices to Mark Zuckerberg to workers’ behind-the-scenes organizing struggles. Chang also does a beautiful job across the board with all of Jing Jing’s various relationships: from her work colleagues to J to her father in China, each one is compellingly realized (albeit through the narrator’s eyes). Put simply, Days of Distraction excels at everything it attempts, and then some; connoisseurs of literary fiction should definitely not miss it, but there are certainly rewards here for all other kinds of readers as well.
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