Just in case you’ve not had enough of all things pandemic-related, I recommend Lawrence Wright’s, “The End of October,” published just weeks ago. Mr. Wright, a writer at The New Yorker, previously wrote a gripping and Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the plot to destroy the world trade center in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 911. This time he writes fiction: what happens when a pathogen strikes?
We all know the answer now, each in our own idiosyncratic ways. I am elderly; my wife is older than I am. We look at the news each day with a grim determination to try to mitigate risk in the years to come. Everything suddenly is on the table. It’s a shocking turn for me, an otherwise healthy hell-raiser who, just months ago, loved going to court each day to raise my allotted share of hell.
Our three adult-children have each had their own reactions. The doctor in New York prepared us weeks in advance for a terror that didn’t quite materialize; our middle child, a seemingly carefree flower child in search of a garden, appears to have hiked the pandemic away out west; our oldest, a new father and now expectant father, seems hunkered down, busy attending to the needs of his growing family.
We each of us adjusted the quotidian rhythms of our lives to this new thing on our shores.
Mr. Wright wrote before all this happened. The result is an abstract sort of work that delivers news of the death of millions by an invisible pathogen with a startling lack of immediacy. I suppose I started the book looking for answers Mr. Wright was not prepared to give.
Even so, the first half of the book was a marvel. He focused on public health officers’ trying to come to grips with a new disease breaking out around the world. The protagonist is a senior infectious disease specialist. He is a complex enough character to carry the story from beginning to end.
But a funny thing happens mid-way through the book. The focus becomes less the nitty gritty search for causes and mechanisms of disease and transmission of infection, and more an exercise in geo-political displacement.
It’s not U.S.-China relations that define global tensions, rather, it is Russia and Vladimir Putin. The two global powers harbor suspicions and strategic ambitions as the pandemic strikes. How those tensions play out drives a good deal of the latter part of the narrative. I found this part of the work particularly unconvincing. I suppose that I read this part of the novel when a far more significant drama was playing out in my own household – would Costco be able to deliver food to our home, located well off the beaten path?
Somehow Mr. Wright missed the drama of the ordinary in this book, even as he wrote about the trials and tribulations facing the protagonist’s children. There is an anesthetized feel to this book. The characters don’t bleed; their anxieties are polite, not existential.
Even so, I recommend the book. It has a surprise ending that could well serve as a cautionary tale in the run up to the 2020 election. We’re into the blaming season now. It’s either all Donald Trump’s fault, or the fault of some deep state cabal that seeks to seize power by means of a viral coup.
Both dramas fail to satisfy and have the hollow ring of half-truths. In the race of Donald Trump versus Joe Biden and the whatever woman, and it must be a woman, mind you, preferably Black, the better to appeal to two demographics simultaneously, the losers are the American people regardless of what votes are cast. One gets the feeling that we are sleeping walking through a catastrophe, an odd parallel to the hollow emotions of the characters in Mr. Wright’s novel.
In the meantime, reality beckons. There is a virus of unknown origin summoning collective responses. We react based in part on the basis of old tropes forced into service as contemporary lenses. But what if we’re looking in all the wrong places? What if the source of this pandemic is obvious, but one we refuse to see because politics and political narratives must be served?
I put Mr. Wright’s book down upon finishing it with a grim sort of satisfaction. The whodunnit was solved. I knew why the world was laid waste.
The moral? None of the stories we told ourselves about causation mattered. We were what we had always been, nature’s accidental playthings. Mr. Wright walked away from the conclusion as though it were foregone. A hopeless sort of endling for a people determined to find hope amid the embers.
Read the book. It’s not as crisp and compelling as The Looming Tower, but it is timely. And, if nothing else, it will take your mind off of wondering whether returning to work or traveling to the barber shop will kill you.