Rachel Heng’s story “Before the Valley” (The New Yorker, May 31, 2021) should be renamed “Before the Death Valley.”
Set in contemporary Singapore, a country as unabashed in its helpless embrace of the death-end of capitalism as is the U.S., the story is about the elderly living out their lives in an assisted living center named “Sunrise Valley.”
Events are narrated primarily from the point of view of one particular resident whose daughter works 8 days, 80+ hours a week to pay for her mother’s care. The mother has a serious fall and the daughter, being at work for most of the day, including weekends, fears another accident. The choice to put the mother in an assisted living center is a necessity.
As the narrator says, the word “before” is a code. “Before […] was the shorthand residents used for their lives prior to Sunrise Valley. Before wasn’t talked about often; it felt unseemly somehow, self-indulgent, to dwell on one’s past life.”
But were the lives the inmates lived “before” any better or life-affirming than the lives of their present?
I understand the answer to be a “no”. The narrator reminisces about the life “before”, in the regime of her parents, in the regime of her husband, and then in the regime of her two daughters. Her memory of the past is unsentimental, not colored by projections of the ideal in her mind. Her parents struggled to put food on the table, to pay rent; to give the daughter a “better” life, they outsource her education and upbringing to the church. In essence, they give her up. The narrator remembers the “unseemly” moments of abjection and exploitation at the hands of the nuns. Her husband was a lout who leaves her and her two young daughters in penury. She has to take on extra labor for paying rent to self-support and support her daughters. The daughters grow older and the familial ties are ambiguously outlined. There is no idealizing of the “family.” One daughter leaves for New York to slave away at an advertising agency. The daughter who stays behind in Singapore to look after her mother is drained of energy. She is 48, childless, without a family of her own. The mother realizes the daughter is in a worse position that she is.
The past of other inmates seep out as well. They are no more jovial and bright than that of the narrator’s. The story begins with a birthday celebration of a resident who turns 90 at Sunrise Valley. We get to know that his “before” was death. He was a state executioner whose claim to fame was that he could endear himself to those on death row and persuade them to become organ donors. But does this man remember his past? Evidently he doesn’t because of an onset of dementia, or perhaps he fakes dementia to keep his past a secret. He is celebrated as a social man who somehow has the ability to lift up the spirits of the residents. He is well liked. His company is sought after. But no sooner than his past is revealed, the residents strangely begin to avoid him, isolate him.
Except for the narrator. By the story’s ending the narrator has had an epiphany: Life has been death for almost everybody, cringing before a system that sucks the life out of people even when they are younger. She realizes that life in old age inside Sunrise Valley is neither better or worse than the lives outside in the system. Sunrise Valley fits in perfectly with the other cogs of the system in which people find themselves (shall I name it “capitalism”?) It’s just that citizens are deluded into believing otherwise, into fearing death as though it were the opposite of the lives they have led.
The narrator has a breakthrough moment. All she needs to do is adapt to the notion of death as a homely one, not an uncanny or jarring dark place severed from life.
The narrator chooses to befriend the hangman whom everybody else has by now abandoned. Sitting next to him at the center’s big bland dining table, soaking in the smell and taste of nasi lemak, the narrator asks, “Tell me […] what’s it like to die.”