We Outside: Akilah White on Mandy-Suzanne Wong

The Box: A Novel, by Mandy-Suzanne Wong
(Graywolf Press, ISBN 9781644452493, 264pp)


Boxes are much-storied objects in fables, legends and myths. From Pandora’s Box to cursed Egyptian coffins, they feature in tales meant to test humanity’s moral fortitude, expose our weaknesses, and explain disease, strife and general misfortune in the world, often with a dose of misogyny and orientalism, alongside the human urge to discover and possess. The Box, the latest novel by Bermudan author Mandy-Suzanne Wong, calls the reader to a different adventure.

Without a standard plot or conventionally-constructed cast, Wong has designed her polyvocal, dystopian narrative to draw attention to the building material of our world, tangible and intangible, within and without the page. In doing so, she cultivates a way of hearing in which borders are broken down, not only between different peoples but between the animate and the inanimate, unseating anthropocentric philosophies that are the foundation of ongoing dystopias.

Enter this box and you enter an unnamed, snow-laden, metropolis cut off from capitalism and time:

At the beginning of the week before last, people in general began to understand that this snow we’re having is strange enough to be disturbing not in the sense that all snow is uncanny as anything falling from the sky is uncanny, showing that the seams of the world between Earth and sky, sky and space, solid and liquid, between the present and unimaginable past are riddled with imperceptible holes, but disturbing in its perfect regularity, which you must admit is perfectly irregular…

Wong defamiliarizes snowfall then introduces a new regularity that pushes the world out of seasonal sync: unceasing snowfall. It isn’t a blizzard (that came before) but an overlong precipitation that falls faster than it melts. Her Miltonian description of urban transportation networks conjures subways belching fumes into the atmosphere, tires masticating and spitting out snow. But their heat is the fuel for this new climate change the city can only measure by what it has (snow), by what is disappearing (almost everything else, including memory), and what has ended (transportation of human and goods into or out of the polis).

In many past fables, legends and myths, a box’s mystery had to be solved and possessed. In this new addition to that tradition, curiosity is welcome but strangeness is treasured

Through imperceptible holes, Wong slips the reader into chapters of largely first-person narratives. They range from a former Human Resources staff member at a manufacturer of “global climate solutions”, a wealthy patron’s art curator, to a domestic worker, security guard and more. All have recently left their work, been made redundant, been newly hired or seen their income stream fall into doubt – all in precarity. Depending on personality and circumstance, their chapters shift between stream of consciousness; unmarked, co-narrated dialogue; digital archives of emails; media articles; and a will and testament. All addressed to a ‘you’ I feel compelled to assign multiple possible identities. “You” may be the narrator or another character off page related to the narrator or the reader or the author herself. This you enclosed me within its dimensions, inviting me to sit with her/them in a “so-called cafe”, to jog around a mall, to fuse my identity with not only people but also place, such as a hotel.

The novel’s language establishes a terrain in which every object, every thing is ostensibly active in a way that invites a sense of conceit, personification, and pathetic fallacy:

…there was the blizzard, yes and very well, to whatever extent that there are facts of life the occasional blizzard is one; but after the wind died the snow lived on, and even after the biggest snowdrifts…were cleared away or melted by the hot breath of the city…snow continued falling straight down as it is doing now…

It grows into something subversive. It is as though the book’s theme is encapsulated in the line: ‘human agency has never been other than intricate dancing with nonhumanity.’ And it is the nonhuman that actually takes the lead, subsuming humans under a conceptual phenomenology of things. The first encounter between humans is the “Secondhand” chapter narrator’s recollection of discovering “a fallen object” outside in the snow: an unconscious woman “pulverized and bloody.” Heternormative patriarchy is one of the world’s building blocks. We witness the aftermath of intimate partner violence alongside attacks from masses in the street, grounded in a misogynistic ageism in which women are not deemed worthy of the city’s dwindling resources unless they are young, fertile or parents. Yet, it is also through objects that Wong proposes we build a new paradigm. If humans hold regard for any thing whether a snail, a tree or a box, if we are curious about its origins and how it came to be, if we respect what it gives, these impulses can be used to radically redefine what it means to be “object” and change how the word operates in our ways of thinking and being.

Importantly, nature imagery is deployed to build this theory. In these pages, climate change turns hotels into shelters for many, some better than others. In the “Remainder” chapter are intertwined narratives of the “fallen object”, physically recovered and working as a bartender at La Blue Boite hotel and an indoor gardener at “htl-esc” as told by his twin staying at the former. As a denizen of an island on which parasitic tourism continues to feed, Wong’s choice to render the hotels as rebellion sites astonishes and moves the reader long after. Here were some of the most tender encounters between the human and nonhuman, the bartender a gardener in all but name:

The Boite’s bar is closed at night so I can care for it… I’m putting the chairs on the table. Chairs on the table reaching for the ceiling with their legs form a thing like the bud of a sleeping flower. The chairs are legs-up on the table so their feet won’t scratch it while I’m cleaning underneath. This is my taking care of you.

htl-esc, run by a consortium, with a more extravagant and colonial tinged legend, had an indoor gardener to aid its rebellion. Management hired him to lessen the irregularities sprouting everywhere: pink mushrooms with star shaped, yellow speckles poking through shower heads; plants in symbiosis with carpets, exchanging colors; flowers growing with natural leaves and fabric; holes, deep dark pits, appearing in the cellar and reappearing after the gardener fills them. But while control is often key to one’s definition of the garden, his experience with them enables a reinterpretation of his role from controller to a comrade-in-arms, perhaps literally.

I have used no proper nouns for the characters for most have none. Without them, without physical descriptions or in some cases without gendered pronouns the reader is more reliant than in most texts on how the author embodies them in and through language. The former Human Resources worker slips in, out and between the lives of others even as she thinks of keeping her distance and insists she has anthrophobia. So her sentences flow close together, separated by mere semicolons for blocks of texts. The art curator, high on her new position and drunk in her assumed ability to declare what is or is not art, eager to assert power to compensate for past feelings of powerlessness, is sequestered in conventionally discrete paragraphs. Near the end, a warehouse supervisor made redundant changes the pace, the return to a stream of consciousness producing sentences that seem to chase him as he attempts to rant commerce’s resurgence through exercise and venomous prejudice of every kind.

Is language an entirely trustworthy vessel to carry all these elements? Wong, who believes in the possibility of infecting Englishes with a sense of foreignness, deploys poetic alliterative prose to both intensify and create distance between words and what they convey. A stranger’s unsettling presence in an apartment is intensified with the “new sound slithered through the seams.” The opposite is achieved with the alliterative “COZY, CLEAN AND COOL” global climate solutions manufacturer, “the subject of cozy, geoconstructivist cleaning.” Its sharp, puffs of breath are an ironic counterpoint. And it is this distance that is Wong’s ultimate playground. Characters’ actions belie their self-descriptions, they sew doubt into their own narration of events which they often receive secondhand (or third, or fourth). Some readers will recognize what Wong herself marks as misquotes of other authors. She creates new words from old, turning wholes into prefixes and suffixes to name new things. The Box is not unlike an assemblage artwork itself. Mimicking the one in the book (or vice versa), for which words and story are found objects arranged and rearranged to open us to uncertainty, to despair, to the possibility of a different world, of new modes of relation: “The act of looking becomes adventuring instead of pausing to lock ourselves in a moment.”

In many past fables, legends and myths, a box’s mystery had to be solved and possessed. In this new addition to that tradition, curiosity is welcome but strangeness is treasured, vulnerability is sacred and we are all composites of each other in an earth-grand-thing-complex. I did not give much attention to the titled object, what it looked like, what it did, because I think it’s best for you to meet it on your own terms. What will it be for you? What will it draw from you?


Akilah White is a Jamaican book reviewer, beta-reader and bookstagrammer.

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