Reading pandemic fiction during a pandemic feels even more edgy and piquant than I would have imagined – and much more empowering
After what seemed like a lifetime, we crept back to the office and cracked the door open, checking supplies, flushing lines, and tentatively inviting our patients back into an environment more fully than ever wrapped, masked, wiped, suctioned, and distanced. My employees were nervous about the prospect of facing the public, terrified of a menace that, the avalanche of media reportage notwithstanding, was next to impossible to assess. As novelist Arundhati Roy wrote, “Who can look at anything anymore — a door handle, a cardboard carton, a bag of vegetables — without imagining it swarming with those unseeable, undead, unliving blobs dotted with suction pads waiting to fasten themselves on to our lungs?” (Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020)
The virus made me uneasy too, but I still found myself craving the rhythms and clarity of work. Being sidelined for seven weeks might have been a rehearsal for retirement, but only if retiring consisted of retreating to a cave. I woke at odd hours. I lost track of days. From inside my little grotto, the Arizona governor’s executive order to resume “non-essential” surgeries beckoned like sunshine, and I was ready to stagger out into its warmth, even if fresh air would have to be muzzled by filtration-efficient masks and the light refracted through a face shield. (Sunburn and heat stroke and skin cancer? Life demands that we weigh risks.)
My staff was brave: the employees voted to reopen the office, and they made light of their fears by taking “socially distancing” photos wearing inflatable body balls. My colleagues were resourceful, helping me find masks and offering me tips on managing patient flow. My patients were supportive—one, a nurse, supplied us with scarce hand sanitizer, which she found at a feed store. My mother even sewed a stack of cloth gowns that we could change for laundering between patients. Yet of all the preparations for engaging with the realities of my new world, none gave me better psychological cover than reading fiction.
I’ve always been a reader. I developed the habit early in life, pulling books out of my parents’ bookshelves—inevitably with a sense of mystery, as if unsheathing broadswords of mythical promise—and riding my bike down to the local library on Saturdays, intrigued that linear marks on a page could readily open my brain to other people’s consciousness, their realities, ideas, and lively conversations.
Reading invited an introverted kid to live boldly, imagine the world’s vastness, and fly to its far corners, even to blast off the planet, G-forces tearing at my mind, to touch the stars. So, of course, when I found myself pressed under the thumb of the COVID-19 pandemic, I naturally fell back on that well-worn impulse to read my way out.
If you like books about mass calamity, you’ll need more than seven weeks. Disaster threats, both real and imagined, are as old as history, and their symbolic trappings often loom as important as the event. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes a civilization-ending flood so dramatically pegged to notions of religious obedience and sacrifice that the story was retold in the Bible, the Quran, and the Hindu Dharmasastra, from which it rippled into Buddhist and Jainist texts. Moses’s Egyptian plagues, what with all those frogs and the pharaoh’s disdain and the lamb’s blood daubed on Israelite doors, famously celebrated in Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, are more circumspectly remembered each year at Passover. Latter-day cataclysms sparked by the struggle of good vs. evil, as promised in the Book of Revelation, continue to resonate in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s novel Good Omens (1990).
The earliest tales of apocalypse invariably warn against human hubris. “You are the plague,” a blind man tells Oedipus in that classical Greek tragedy, as Jill Lepore reports in “Don’t Come Any Closer: What’s at stake in our fables of contagion?” (The New Yorker, March 30, 2020.) Ancient lessons are rebirthed in modern yarns of technology-triggered disaster, including H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1998). But the most expansive, the most profound, and perhaps the most gripping annihilation stories arise from the unpredictability of disease.
Susan Sontag describes the universality of physical entropy in Illness as Metaphor (1978): “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Sontag also outlines the social mayhem of everyone’s getting sick at the same time. Pandemic, she writes, offers “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide.”
Contagion stories, from Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353)—in which some rich folks repair to a villa above Florence to self-isolate during an epidemic of bubonic plague—to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), quickly went global, and far ahead of any germ theory. The early pandemic narratives feel, even now—especially now—eerily prescient. Consider, for instance, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s 1826 tale The Last Man, in which an unnamed pestilence brought on by climate change wipes out the world’s population in the 21st century.
“There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics,” Ed Simons writes at themillions.com (“On Pandemic and Literature,” March 12, 2020), noting that narrative is an attempt to make meaning out of the randomness of disease, to confirm “that sense still exists somewhere.” Stories about illness, Simons concludes, are “a reclamation against that which illness represents—that the world is not our own.”
Parables of pestilence generally embody, as Sontag implies, a kind of analysis of society in reverse, a way of examining our values by looking at their shadows. “The great dream of the Enlightenment was progress; the great dread of epidemic is regress,” Lepore writes. “But in American literature such destruction often comes with a democratic twist: contagion is the last leveler.”
Some such tales are patterned on real events. Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) by Katherine Anne Porter covers the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Love in the Time of Cholera (1988) by Gabriel García Márquez revolves around a 19th century cholera epidemic. Outbreak (1987) by Robin Cook and The Hot Zone (1999) by Richard Preston reflect on the Ebola virus. Norman Spinrad’s Journal of the Plague Years (1988) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991) chronicle AIDS.
Many, including Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), The Dog Stars (2012) by Peter Heller, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), focus on the flu. “I keep having people say, ‘Gee, it’s like we’re living in a Stephen King story,’ King told National Public Radio. “And my only response to that is, ‘I’m sorry.’” (“Stephen King is Sorry You Feel Like You’re Stuck in a Stephen King Novel,” NPR, April 8, 2020.)
But many more come steeped in pure fantasy. In The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton, an Arizona town is the first to go when extraterrestrial microbes fall to earth and wreak havoc. The Book of M (2018) by Peng Shepherd describes a perplexing medical condition in which whole populations lose their memory—and their shadow.
Some tales turn victims into monsters. Vampire tropes are popular, including Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), in which a virus engineered to cure cancer transforms humans into blood sucking mutants, and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010), where a botched government experiment to prolong human life unleashes a bat-vectored virus that converts most of humanity into the undead. Viral pandemics that change people into zombies also loom large, from Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006) to Zone One (2011) by Colson Whitehead. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), an unnamed apocalyptic event simply turns humans into their worst selves.
The most influential pandemic narrative, and the one that has become a touch point for this pandemic, is arguably Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947). Just as W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” which, although referencing Germany’s invasion of Poland, evoked the image of a lonely, frightened person in New York and so became an anthem of 9/11, The Plague speaks powerfully to the current coronavirus moment.
I studied The Plague with a virtual reading group led by a novelist on faculty at Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. The story follows the work of a physician in a French colonial city in North Africa as it suffers an outbreak of bubonic plague. The townspeople, suddenly ordered to shelter in place, feel exiled and imprisoned, like pawns pushed around someone else’s board game. Through the eyes of the doctor, who witnesses denial, outrage, suffering, terror, resignation, and death on scales both enormous and intimate—most of his closest friends succumb—Camus’s narrative explores themes of isolation and separation and individual morality and community responsibility in the face of public disruption.
What was Camus’s point? And what should a reader take away from the experience of living through a pandemic while reading about one?
For one thing, Camus thought that extremity should force us to rise to the occasion, rejecting greed and selfishness, and gathering to our hearts and minds renewed courage, patience, cooperation, and love. “[Camus] was a public man of action who insisted that all truly important questions came down to individual acts of kindness and goodness,” Tony Judt writes (“On The Plague,” The New York Review of Books, November 29, 2001).
For another, Camus may have hoped that people learn humility. A pandemic, he judged, shows that success is never fully self-determined, nor advancement wholly predicated on skill, talent, and a committed work ethic. Some circumstances are random, and nature always wins. As philosopher Alain de Botton puts it, “Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency” (“Camus on the Coronavirus,” The New York Times, March 19, 2020).
The Plague also warns against complacency and apathy. “The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely,” Camus writes. Instead, it lurks, biding its time, ready to return without warning “for the instruction or misfortune of mankind.” Yet even if plagues never expire, our resolve to fight them often does, and the danger of laxity rises with time. As David Quammen writes, “Mundane but crucial infection-control measures—the assiduous hand washing and wiping of doorknobs with alcohol—can lapse after a crisis” (“The Warnings: Why we should have known to prepare for COVID-19,” The New Yorker, May 11, 2020).
Finally, Camus seems to believe that pandemonium should reacquaint us with sensitivity and subtlety. We live in a world of sharp dichotomies—us vs. them, red vs. blue, urban vs. rural—that limit our imagination, our compassion, and our ability to navigate setbacks. As Colum McCann writes: “We refuse to embrace contradiction. We eschew the notion of nuance…but what if this virus, which makes us tiny and epic both, can teach us a little about holding contradictory ideas again?” (“Till Human Voices Wake Us: What If This Virus Can Teach Us to Change Ourselves?” The Atlantic, May 1, 2020)
And this, I think, is Camus’s greatest lesson in The Plague: Negotiating an emergency demands that we embrace contradictions. Camus’s doctor is able work through the catastrophe that engulfs him by learning to hold inconsistent or conflicting thoughts at the same time—urgency and composure, helplessness and control, solitude and companionship, despair and hope. (In the latter, I am reminded of the introspective pastor, played by Ethan Hawke, in the 2017 film First Reformed, which Tonka and I watched one night last month as our normal lives lay frozen, who tells one of his parishioners, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously, hope and despair.”)
Life is not binary—choices are never just right or left, this or that, up or down, good or bad. The chips simply don’t fall one way or the other. We live with ambiguity, and many events and circumstances arrive as a mixed bag. Acknowledging both life’s uncertainties and its possibilities, Camus concludes that the sort of mental balancing act that accepts—together, one informing the other—such opposing elements as worry and confidence, or anxiety and determination, or confusion and decisiveness, is one likely to handle the dislocations of crisis.
The Plague, then, helped me understand that bewilderment can yet propel sound decisions, tempering audacity with a grounded calculation—like the emotional version of a cost-benefit analysis. The recognition gave me a needed shot of optimism. The governor wielded his executive order, but Albert Camus sent me back to work.