Even agents of the Ministry that governs Heng’s imagined Manhattan are far from all-powerful. So-called Observers follow Lea from work to home, noting the music she listens to and the exact color and style of her sweaters as obsessively as she used to track her own life-expectancy stats. Yet when Lea goes to visit the men charged with observing her, she finds them shoved into a crowded office, complaining of budget cuts. “Meal reduction, benefits reduction, supplemental shift schedule, space consolidation,” sighs one, who’s just typed up a detailed description of Lea’s bitten nails. “Who knows where this is going to end?”
The pursuit of longevity, meanwhile, is acerbically funny in Heng’s hands. A diner customer complains that a leaf marketed as baby wild arugula “looks like regular arugula to me.” Clinics feature juice bars, staffed by baristas with decades of medical school. Grapefruit (grapefruit!) must be placed on the bottom shelf at grocery stores to shame customers who stoop to indulge in the sugar. Lea keeps a running commentary, relayed by a close third-person narrator, on the bodies of everyone she meets. The leader of her Ministry-mandated support group has “sunken and glistening” pores in his face; a man she suspects of spying on her is safe, she decides, because “no Ministry person would be allowed to walk around with a BMI like that.” Such judgments, it becomes clear, are just another attempt to connect the observable with the inevitable, to gain the power of understanding over things she can’t control.
Heng faces the challenge of creating a meaningful narrative that’s premised on the inherent pointlessness of pursuing eternity for its own sake. For the most part, she succeeds. The pacing of Lea’s character development is jerky, at times feeling incomplete as she wavers between fascination, repulsion, and sympathy with the members of the Suicide Club. Though the formative moments of her childhood are explored vividly in flashbacks—“the oily slick of buttercream” on her hand from forbidden cake at a party; the “hot, pungent breath” and blood-streaked face of a boy she punches at school—she doesn’t reckon fully with their impact on her choices in the present day, making the transformation that leads to a final climactic scene with Anja seem slightly rushed.
For all her visceral descriptions of physical detail and sensation, Lea’s emotional vocabulary is limited; she leans on the phrase There was something about to communicate satisfaction or discomfort, and carries out internal debates with frequent interjections of Yes, but. Her feelings tend to come upon her “suddenly,” and puzzle her when they do: an “odd sense of loss,” a “surprising twinge” that she tells herself can’t possibly be regret. These verbal tics communicate a shallow self-awareness that’s realistic for her character’s background—a lifetime of following the bureaucratically worded health directives that pepper her internal monologues, of muting emotional responses to keep cortisol levels low. (“They knew how bad anger was for oxidative degeneration,” she reflects at one point of her colleagues, wondering whether she “should suggest some breathing exercises.”) In this respect, Lea is similar, again, to the narrator of Never Let Me Go, who reflects the restrictions of her society in her limited capacity for expression. Heng’s dystopia, like Ishiguro’s, values its citizens’ bodies to the exclusion of their thoughts—a subtle form of dehumanization that shows even on the level of language.