Like every other once-idealistic liberal arts college graduate who took a post-recession detour into the tech industry, I recently cringed my way through Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley at breakneck speed. (I didn’t react as strongly to it as my colleagues have. Mostly, I was just smug all over again that I never lived in San Francisco.)
My most lingering takeaway has been the book’s hallmark stylistic choice: Winkingly precise descriptions in place of proper nouns. Anna Wiener’s employers Oyster and Mixpanel become “the e-book startup” and “the data-analytics startup”; Amazon becomes “the online superstore.” My colleagues and I have traded the same hypotheses that reviewers have over whether she was gunning for timelessness or just skirting the Valley’s notoriously watertight NDAs, but it occurred to me this week that maybe she’s as allergic as I am to true names.
Writing in my journal these past weeks, I’ve caught myself studiously avoiding the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19,” preferring instead the more cinematic “the virus.” I wince a little every time I read in a newspaper about who is and isn’t “practicing ‘social distancing,'” the scare quotes omnipresent around “social distancing” but not, mysteriously, “practicing,” which is jargon if I ever heard it; I dare you to tell me the last time you “practiced” something instead of just doing it. (You didn’t.)
I never was comfortable with argot. I chalk it up to a childhood spent studiously memorizing the mannerisms of an in-crowd I was outside of. I knew early what I could and couldn’t pull off and most nicknames, in-jokes, baby-talk, everything that was popular on the four-square court, were out of my league. They could smell on me my discomfort with anything that wasn’t of me or at least anything I hadn’t encountered in the dictionary that they insisted I read in my spare time.
(I recognize that in the grand pantheon of bullying, being said to read the dictionary in one’s spare time doesn’t count for much, but God, did it rankle me. I didn’t read the dictionary! It’s only now that I always keep a browser tab open to Thesaurus.com!)
I only trusted language I acquired on my own. Anything else was a landmine. I remember once on the bus back from a field trip when one of the popular boys turned around to me with that glint in his eye and asked if I knew what a “cunt” was. I didn’t, but we were in middle school by then and I knew better than to take language cues from anyone with more mastery over hair gel than pre-algebra, so I just shrugged and returned to staring out the window.
(That bus ride was the first time I heard “The Remedy” and in seventeen years of hearing that song at dentists’ offices I haven’t been able to shake the association with B______ with the hair gel turning toward me with the look of someone who knew he was about to fuck a nerd over. Apropos of nothing, a few years after that I heard that he contracted a near-fatal case of necrotizing fasciitis after a wrestling match.)
So here I am in 2020 feeling like a fraud for calling the creeping crud COVID-19 when I hardly passed high school chemistry. Thus: “the virus.”
I am reminded of a time years ago following a gnarly breakup when I found myself incapable of referring to my ex-boyfriend by name in my journal. I referred to him as him, in italics, as if by abstracting him away on paper I could in real life too, or maybe I was just trying like the characters in Harry Potter not to invoke something I didn’t want around. Pronoun as amulet.
That time has also been on my mind lately as I try to compare right now — i.e., life under the shadow of death — to other trying times in my past. None reasonably compare to an invisible virus lurking on the chard at the grocery store. Logically, I know that. But every morning, five or ten seconds after I wake up, the oppressive weight of another day settles onto my chest like I’m twenty-five and newly single again and not thirty and living in a petri dish.
(“Time and distance,” a dear friend said to me back then when I was wallowing hard. Still relevant, K__!)
Now, at least, I’m affianced. The Thursday before last was the four-year anniversary of my first date with my now-fiancé. Our celebratory road trip around Romania has obviously been postponed until either after the pandemic or the afterlife. I can’t complain much about a celebration that involves lounge pants and a “Tiger King” marathon — let it be known that this is the first time since the second season of “American Idol” that I’ve participated in a cultural moment; I look forward to the next one in 2037 or, again, the afterlife — but I could do without the shadow of death circling ever closer.
The first several months of our relationship were blissful-ish. I got annoyed by things like a stubborn case of pink eye; a six-hour delay at SFO; a gargantuan cockroach that disappeared in my shoebox of an apartment, never to be seen again. The 2016 election took place the night before we were due to fly to Tokyo on a vacation I’d been planning since before we started dating, my Murakami fangirl dream trip.
We all know how that one played out. It played out like my gnarly breakup had a couple years prior; I startled awake in the middle of the night disappointed that it wasn’t a bad dream and then in the morning I would lay in bed for a minute or two adjusting, again, perpetually. In my journal I referred to “the ‘president,'” scare quotes and all.
Maybe it’s magical thinking: If I don’t name it, it can’t be. (It’s a backwards Ursula K. LeGuin.) It’s the writer’s delusion that if I can imagine it far enough from me I can keep it there, too; and the reader’s, that if I can find the experience I desire I can manifest it as my own. I know that my hand sanitizer can only do so much and so I’m turning for the first time to talismans. Can you blame me?
P.S. I wrote several years ago that “it makes me nervous to hear my own name.” I couldn’t figure out where to work that in here, but armchair psychologists are welcome to speculate.