‘The Disaster Tourist’ Is a Timely Capitalist Satire

The Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye wrote that for satire to work, it needed to include “a token fantasy, a content which the reader recognizes as grotesque”; otherwise, the satire “breaks down when its content is too oppressively real.” The Disaster Tourist comes close to being oppressive at times, especially in Yona’s seemingly uncritical view of a workplace that keeps her down. When some colleagues approach her to say they’ve also been harassed by the manager who assaulted her, and ask her to join them in protest, Yona rejects them: “She had no desire to join the group of victims, the has-beens and the losers, the dregs of the company.” When she arrives on Mui, she seems to scoff at the way locals are forced to play up their misery. That she’s spent the past decade designing tours that require this work doesn’t seem to register.

Yun gets the narrative on track when Yona meets the people on Mui who pull her into their scheme. If something does feel, in Frye’s terms, like a “token fantasy,” it’s that these characters are so frank about what their deadly goals will require. To really make their new disaster legit—and, they claim, save the island—they’ll need at least 100 casualties. Their reasoning is that Mui’s economy can’t survive without its disaster industry, and no good disaster comes without a death toll. “There’s not really a difference between dying in a natural disaster and starving to death, is there?” one co-conspirator says to Yona. “In the current situation, dying in a natural disaster would be preferable … if disaster disappears from Mui, life disappears, too.”

The disastrous fallout of the coronavirus pandemic was not planned by a shadowy cabal. Yet Amazon, Apple, Pfizer, and other massive entities have profited enormously during a crisis that has devastated small businesses and killed more than 162,000 Americans. These corporations would never admit that this disaster has been good for them—that if “disaster disappears,” their tumorous profits could too. And this state of affairs is magnified by politicians who keep putting profit before lives: Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis even suggested expanding the definition of “essential workers” as a way to bring more people back to work. His state was registering then, on average, more than 7,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day.

Responsibility to human life has long been a matter of rhetoric, as the writer Danielle Evans wrote in The Sewanee Review in April: As a Black woman whose anxiety in doctors’ offices can send her usually normal blood pressure soaring, she pondered what would happen if she got sick with COVID-19. “Someone would say hypertension,” she wrote, “someone would say comorbidity, someone would read the summarized statistics and say, That one doesn’t count, she was basically dead anyway, because this is the game we are playing with language, one where I and most of the people in my family cannot count as dying of this because we are already not alive.”