Turning to fiction in the face of a pandemic


Matt Roach is the chair of the English department at Peddie. Here he writes about author Charles Yu’s virtual visit to Peddie. Yu is a New York Times Notable Book author and writer for the HBO series Westworld.

As we take stock of the past six months and try to peek into the future, it can be hard to resist a sense of regret, a sense of despair, a sense of fear. 

How could this pandemic have happened? Why did this happen to us? And how much longer can it possibly go? 

These reactions are at once personal and expansive. Like most such problems, they are overwhelming and hard to articulate precisely. It’s often useful to turn to fiction for a clearer sense of how we feel and think.

This year’s Peddie all-school read, “Systems,” by Charles Yu, is a nourishing and stark encapsulation of these times. Students read and analyzed the story in each of their English classes to start the year, examining the multitude of references, arguments, and complexities that Yu explores. English teacher Kurt Bennett first read and suggested the story, and the entire English Department collaborated on the process of teaching it to each grade level.

“Systems,” which was published this summer in the “New York Times Magazine,” begins with a portrait of Americans in December and January. Peddie students noted a sense of innocence that borders on ominousness, as if the country collectively went for a pleasant walk at the beginning of a horror film. Students were struck by the way that Yu slowly but precisely shows the progression of COVID-19 in our collective consciousness through a catalog of imagined Google searches (“NFC Playoff Picture”; “Harry and Meghan”; “What is coronavirus?”), as well as a detached, inhuman point of view. 

The story depicts the problems that the pandemic has compounded, and Peddie classes noted how Yu expands the definition of a “virus” to include both “misinformation” and racism. Students even debated the meaning of the ending; Yu’s text ends ambiguously, but perhaps hopefully: 

“Community is how it spreads. Community is how it ends.”

Yu speaks with Peddie students

On Monday, September 14, Peddie welcomed Charles Yu to our (virtual) campus for a live Zoom Webinar with me and Diku Rogers, Peddie’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The event was made possible by the generosity of the Chilton Fund for Creative Writing. 

"Systems" author Charles Yu

Author Charles Yu spoke with Peddie regarding his piece "Systems" which was an all-school read this past summer. (Photo by Tina Chiou (charlesyuauthor.com)

Yu discussed “Systems” in granular detail, providing students with a close look at his process as a writer and his thinking about this particular piece. Yu also described his distinguished career as an essayist, novelist, and writer for such television shows as HBO’s “Westworld.” He was a gracious and thoughtful guest.    

In our conversation about “Systems,” Yu argued that “misinformation is possibly a bigger threat than the coronavirus itself. It’s hard to combat and will likely mutate into something else.” He noted that misinformation has “emerged as a co-agent with coronavirus, and we’ve watched it mutate in real time.”

Yu further suggested that the virus has exposed “systems of inequality that were harder to see beforehand,” and brought division and unrest into the national discourse. 

However, despite the pain and challenges of the current moment, Yu emphasized his optimism for the future. He said, "The fact that there is still a conversation happening between people of different beliefs and persuasions is what heartens me … we're still having a shouting match, but that's still a conversation." 

The importance of dismantling stereotypes

In the second half of our conversation, Yu took questions from students. He was especially intriguing in discussing his unusual career path; he spent 13 years as a lawyer before becoming a fiction writer full time. He has recently moved into writing for television regularly. 

Students found this story both fascinating and reassuring. “From a career perspective, the notion that you can change careers and paths is comforting,” noted Aisling Creed, ‘21. 

Yu also outlined how he grappled with issues of identity and belonging as a second-generation Taiwanese American; he described not feeling at home with either an “Asian” or “American” identity, and that he often felt a sense of discomfort and alienation. Yu has written extensively about the problems of Asian and Asian-American representation in American culture, and he said he was newly concerned about this phenomenon while raising his children. 

Our sense of community matched Yu's directive for responding to the parallel viruses of COVID-19, misinformation and racism: We need to keep talking, listening and loving.”

Yu stressed the importance of dismantling stereotypes. “They distort the entire narrative and cut certain people and groups out, just to simplify things,” he said. He emphasized the need for more conversations about representation and diversity, and applauded the DEI work that Peddie is doing our in curriculum and student life.

Many students identified with, and were moved by, Yu’s descriptions of these issues of identity. A number of students expressed their appreciation for his words. 

“Yu and I share some of the same cultural background, and so it was interesting to me to hear him describe his issues with identity and belonging,” said Nathen Ho ’21 “And the way he described talking to his daughter, and writing his novel, ‘Interior Chinatown,’ where the main character is challenging the stereotypes of Asians in the US — I found that powerful. I was really struck by the fact that he’s such a hopeful person.”

The night was special because it allowed the Peddie community, near and far, to come together as one for an experience that was both intellectually rich and personally meaningful. Our sense of community matched Yu’s directive for responding to the parallel viruses of Covid-19, misinformation, and racism: We need to keep talking, listening, and loving. 

Toward the end of the seminar, when asked about his personal favorite piece he’s ever written, Yu hesitated, then said, “I really like ‘Systems’.” So did we.