This month I inadvertently found myself reading 3 books at once with one glaring thing in common: they were all set during pandemics. Two of these pandemics were fiction, one was real. One of these books was written and published before 2020, two after. Two of these books I finished reading, one I abandoned partway through.
The books were each unique, set in different areas of the world and different timeframes. The characters were also very different from one another. But clearly, collectively, we have pandemics on the mind.
The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, is one that I’ve already reviewed more thoroughly and the only one of these three that features the real-life pandemic that we have all been living through. Beginning on November 1st, 2019 and going through an entire year to November 1st, 2020, it captures much of the unique circumstances of life throughout that year. Including the growing racial tensions that developed after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Erdrich details things like social distancing, mask-wearing, and business shutting down. There is the uncertainty of those early weeks, particularly before vaccines were developed and available, but there is also a familiarity because we have lived through this experience and if we are reading this book, we have somehow made it this far to 2022.
Severance by Ling Ma was first published in 2018 but drew a lot more attention in the early months of 2020 as we all began to live through a pandemic that, in some ways, felt very similar to the one Ma invented. Set in New York, our narrator is a young woman named Candace. She works an office job, manufacturing Bibles, has a long-term boyfriend but very little in the way of friends, and seemingly no longterm plans or desires. When Shen Fever originates in China, it doesn’t take long to make its way around the globe. Causing its victims to repeat the same actions over and over again, it turns them effectively into zombies (though without the violence we might expect). How it is transmitted remains uncertain but people begin to wear masks to protect themselves, even as there is uncertainty over their effectiveness. Part of the action takes place after Candace has left New York and joined a group of survivors, led by a man named Bob, searching for a place Bob believes will keep them safe and that he refers to as The Facility.
After finishing Severance, I’m inclined to believe that what drew readers to Ling Ma’s novel is how much she got right. Not just a virus that originated out of China that officials tried to cover up or the usage of masks, but the ways people react. The panic, the complacency, the way such events change relationships. Overall though, I found the book kind of boring. I actually was more interested in Candace’s pre-pandemic life than her travels with Bob & Co. Candace herself is not a particularly dynamic character and the story overall lacked tension. I can imagine that if I had read it in March 2020, I might have found it more stressful but here in May 2022, I just didn’t.
The final of my three pandemic reads was Here Goes Nothing, a new book by Steve Toltz (author of A Fraction of a Whole). This is a new novel, just released in March of this year (I had an ARC). Set in Australia, it features a global pandemic as a sort of side event. Though, I never finished it, so perhaps the pandemic becomes a bigger deal later on. The pandemic is fictional (and a lot more gruesome than the one in Severance) but it’s impossible that Toltz wasn’t inspired somewhere by the real world. The narrator here is Angus Mooney, a recently deceased man who has just discovered that there actually is an afterlife. Too bad it’s a worse version of the world as he already knew it and it’s terribly mismanaged. Added to that is the fact that the man who killed Mooney is now attempting to seduce his pregnant widow. This is one of those books that I think is supposed to be funny but it just wasn’t at all my sense of humour. I found Mooney annoying. I found his wife annoying. I found Toltz’s whole vision of the afterlife annoying. And as someone who does actually have fairly specific beliefs about life after death, I simply wasn’t enjoying this read and I didn’t care what happened in the growing pandemic that Mooney had left behind.
I didn’t set out to read any pandemic books, let alone three at once, so I think it’s indicative of a growing topic of interest. I knew that The Sentence and Severance featured pandemics before I began reading them. I think this is something that we’ll see more of in the coming months in years and I feel like that makes sense. Art is one of the ways that we as humans deal with trauma and tragedy. We need to express the collective grief and loss we have experienced, both in big and small ways. We need to share those experiences and feelings and know that we’re not alone. I’m not sure that I will ever seek out pandemic novels but I have a feeling I haven’t read my last.
Have you read any novels that feature pandemics? Were they based on something real or fictional? Do you find it helpful or do they stress you out?