Rachel Heng ’11 spent four years strolling from Morningside Heights down to Union Square, Soho and Chinatown, but she never really saw the city for what it was — “a bubble of contradictions,” she says — until she decided to write a book about it.
There were glimpses during her college years, sure. She was disturbed by the American healthcare system, which paled in comparison to her native Singapore’s government-supervised version. “That’s something that shocked me about the United States — the fact that if you don’t have money to pay for a treatment, you’re kind of left in a lurch,” she says. “I was like, what do you mean, it’s going to cost me $5,000 to get this random treatment? If I don’t have $5,000, I’m screwed?” Working in private equity after graduating opened her eyes to more: How rising housing prices have pushed city natives to outer boroughs. The growing income gaps. And the way that some people swilled $12 green juices in the hopes of living to 100, while others could barely afford McDonald’s.
Heng explores these inequalities in her debut novel, Suicide Club (Henry Holt, $27), which tells the story of New York City in the not-so-distant future. Some New Yorkers have the potential to live for hundreds of years, provided they follow a strict set of government-mandated health guidelines (no red meat, no high-impact exercise) and opt for the cutting-edge surgical procedures that turn their skin to Teflon and their hearts into endlessly beating machines. Any appeal of an everlasting life is lost early in Chapter One — the characters are largely depressed, repressed and, despite their extended lifespans, terrified of dying. As they grapple with their many opportunities and limitations, some decide to opt out by joining a hedonistic group called the Suicide Club.
The settings might be different, but the characters’ obsessions and privileges tend to be amplified versions of what Heng sees around her now. The treatments that characters undergo in the book sound like they’d appear in next week’s Goop newsletter, along with their attempts to live in ultra-clean, allergen-free housing, and the relaxation exercises they do to boost their lifespan. “There’s something quite existential about fixating on these small, everyday decisions, as if somehow, if you get everything just right, you’re going to live forever,” Heng says. “[You think] all your problems are going to be solved because today, you didn’t eat that chocolate and instead ate this superfood — but then you find out that actually, that food gives you cancer. There’s something strange and darkly comic about it.”
Heng, who majored in comparative literature at the College and spent four years working in finance before turning to writing, borrowed from her own experiences when shaping her fictional world. Take a recent visit to Flatiron vegetarian hotspot abcV: “On the menu they were breaking down the ingredients in the juices and various things — very well intentioned,” Heng says. “All of them included really fancy-sounding ingredients, like St. John’s Wort, and then there was one line that said ‘carrot,’ and it told you why carrot was good for you.” She laughed at how preposterous it all was — the need to highlight the nutritional benefits of the humble carrot and our need to feel sure of every morsel we put in our bodies. “We’ve entered this weirdly dystopian era,” she says.
As funny as the wellness fixation can be, Heng sees a deeper issue at play in both her story and modern day: humankind’s reluctance to surrender. While she hopes others relate, Heng says she wrote the book in part to reckon with both her own fear of dying and her annoyance with the current obsession with health. “I do have a tendency to try to control everything, and I think I’m very much the lesson that I’m telling in the book, to a degree,” she says. “My husband jokes that I wrote an entire book to justify my diet.” It worked, somewhat. Heng says she feels a little less frightened of the end, and more at peace with her less-than-healthy eating habits.
Now an M.F.A. student at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, Heng is taking in her new city’s contradictions and inequalities, and shifting her focus to historical fiction. But she hasn’t lost sight of the biggest mystery of all. “A poet friend told me that a famous poet said there are only three topics: love, death and the changing of seasons — which is really about death,” she says. “I never write about love, so I think I’ll keep writing about death.”