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Desire in a Dying World

The opening pages of C Pam Zhang’s second novel, Land of Milk and Honey, imagine a planet facing crisis after crisis—an extension of our own. Climate change has devastated the land: the Earth is covered in smog; crops have withered; countries are caving to famine. Zhang joins a number of other writers who have recently used their work to ask how to live in a dying world. But her curiosity is more pointed: She seems to be asking how we might still find pleasure amid collapse—and whether it’s moral to do so when so many are just trying to survive.

The novel’s narrator is an unnamed 29-year-old American chef working in England who finds herself trapped when the U.S. closes its borders as smog spreads and geopolitical tensions rise. On the same day that she receives notice that her late mother’s apartment in Los Angeles has burned down in a riot, her boss cuts pesto from the restaurant’s menu because there’s no more basil, “not even the powdered kind.” Zhang splices the two events together in the same breath, suggesting that for the chef, they are equally significant. She pays lip service to the famine’s severity in Southeast Asia and the Americas, and debates over which superpower is most to blame. But what she really seems to mourn is the disappearance of peridot grapes and buttery mangoes and “the bitter green of endive.”

Even catastrophe, we’re reminded, is bookended by the needs of the present, interrupted by the cravings of one’s palate. Throughout, Zhang, who wrote the novel after her first transformative post-pandemic meal at a restaurant, employs food as a stand-in for gratification (at one point, her central character refers to strawberries “as yielding as a woman’s inner thigh”).

Finally, after being asked to cook with gritty, gray mung-protein flour, the narrator quits: “In the dimness of that refrigerated room I could no longer see a future for the halibut dish without pesto.” Because she can no longer take her beloved ingredients or sunlight or clean air for granted, she decides to allow herself to want “recklessly, immorally” by taking a job as a private chef in a gated European mountaintop community of the ultra-wealthy. Her new employer and his enigmatic daughter, Aida, a scientist who runs the community’s biodiversity labs, are trying to preserve the richness of the Earth for the stomachs of the few, resurrecting Berkshire pigs and engineering tender heirloom grains. When she arrives at the Italian-French border, the narrator learns that the place is called Terra di latte e miele—“the land of milk and honey”—and that her role is to prepare elaborate meals for investors.

By imagining the planet stretched to near destruction, Zhang poses complex questions about self-interest. She asks the reader to consider how meaningful individual behavior actually is when the environment continues to decay, regardless of whether one tries to do the right thing. The chef, after becoming unmoored by the loss of her mother’s home, accepts the twisted, transactional arrangement of her job on the mountain, as well as the comfort and bounty it affords her; life’s difficulties have already begun to erode her appetite for morality. She prepares trial runs of elaborate meals, discarding pounds of pommes dauphine and pouring out gallons of steaming Armagnac, even as she thinks about starving children. When her employer asks her to pretend to be his missing wife at the dinners he hosts to fund the mountain, she agrees—in exchange for more money. As she thinks at one point, “What … is fairness in a world that fears there is never enough, in which one need always scrapes against another?”

And so the chef decides to embrace the privileges of her life on the mountain, falling in love with Aida in the process. Even as she becomes more and more powerless—her employer demands that she maintain her body-mass index within a certain range and remain silent at dinners—she realizes that all she can secure is her own sensual pleasure. As the chef and Aida become romantically intertwined and begin to spend each night together, she decides to say yes: “to cream, to froth that rises, to the crunched lace of the ear and the tender behind the knee, to that join at the legs where she softened, dimpled, begged me to bite.”

In these depictions, Zhang’s writing skates between prose and poetry, balancing the haziness of emotion with the grounding of detail. In some instances, the heaviness of her sentences can tip a passage out of balance or make the story harder to follow. But it is deeply refreshing to see plot intentionally cast in a supporting role, accentuating the primacy of feeling:

Three years, can you imagine, gray days and gray nights, no lovers no family no feasts no flights no fruit no meat and suddenly this largesse of freckles down her torso, this churning, spilling free … Against a still-dark sky, this emergent landscape of her body. Lunar dunes, slick valleys, her throat a shifting topography.

In allowing her narrator to abandon herself to desire, Zhang seems to be arguing that pleasure is an essential part of life—and of survival. Our desire is what makes us human; we don’t cease wanting just because it is selfish or futile. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the chef’s relationship with Aida. As the two become entangled, the chef grows less concerned about the hypocrisies she witnesses on the mountaintop.

When depicting these tensions, the novel can feel preachy, distracting from Zhang’s otherwise mesmerizing prose. Aida, for instance, hosts a hunting party during which the investors kill off a species of chimp that she has decided is not worth preserving. The chef berates Aida; she is shocked by this cruel display, given how protective Aida is of the animals in her labs. In response, Aida spits back, “Please. As if you never ate tuna, or used plastics, or flew on planes when gas was artificially cheap. Every person on this planet had a hand in killing the chimps.”

But despite some of the novel’s unsubtle moments, it is impossible, in most instances, to decipher the narrator’s moral stance—and, more important, how the reader should feel about her. Toward the end of the book, she decides to give up her spot on the mountain after Aida hits a child with her car while they’re driving back from Milan. When Aida’s father pays off the child’s family, Aida’s limp complacency breaks something in the chef’s mind: “I wanted her guts to twist, her stomach to revolt.”

The chef’s decision to leave and renounce her relationship with Aida, however, stands in contrast with how fondly she remembers her time on the mountain in the final pages of the book. Here, Zhang resists devolving into an overwrought critique of climate disaster and individual greed—a restraint that feels in line with her previous work. How Much of These Hills Is Gold, her debut novel, similarly features a female narrator who prioritizes her own interests—in her case, financial stability, beaded white shoes, a beautiful home. The power of Zhang’s work is that she cares more about her characters’ motivations and yearnings than about evaluating their actions as right or wrong. The ethical ambiguities of the book are paralleled by the narrator’s murky recollection of Aida’s face: “plastered up again and again till it became smooth and strange, a cipher without any meaning.”

Zhang’s second novel is a bold encouragement to dwell within our desires, even if we ultimately decide that the consequences do not justify the pursuit. Her message is an addendum to the two stark words—“she wants”—that ended her first novel. Now she seems to be saying: She wants so that she may live.

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