The Strange Comfort of Reading a Pandemic Novel
At this point, two months into a nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and assuming that you’re lucky enough to have been able to stay home, either you’re the kind of person who’s streamed pandemic movies on Netflix or you’re not. Either you’re someone who’s compelled, in the middle of unthinkable calamity, to probe the nuances of that calamity through uncannily resonant works of culture or you’re not. (If you’re in the latter camp, you probably haven’t been able to watch Veep during the Donald Trump presidency.) Back in mid-March, a few days into self-imposed quarantine, I tried to watch Outbreak and found myself having a reaction akin to acute stress: elevated heart rate, sweating, fretful fidgeting. During the scene on the plane when the kid’s hand hovers over the feverish, rheumy Patrick Dempsey’s discarded cookie, I almost screamed. It was, as they say, too soon.
But when I started reading Lawrence Wright’s The End of October a few weeks ago, I had a very different reaction. The new pandemic novel from the New Yorker staff writer has been heavily touted for its prescience: It imagines a global pandemic in which an unfamiliar virus works its way around the world, leaving economic meltdown, conspiracy theories, and mass death in its wake. The book is riddled with scenes that evoke the current moment. The American president, a man with his own cosmetology room and tanning bed in the White House (not to mention a horde of querulous, entitled adult children), outsources the management of the crisis to his vice president, a former governor and radio host. Conspiracy theories, propagated by Russian bot networks, prove nearly as contagious as the virus itself, and foment anti-lockdown protests by armed “patriots.” Masks and rubber gloves are in short supply. Alex Jones endures, broadcasting his claims that the virus is both a eugenicist plot and a myth.
Without spoiling The End of October, it’s fair to say that things don’t go well. Wright’s hero is Dr. Henry Parsons, a physically frail but not unsexy legend in the field of contagion. (“In the never-ending war on emerging diseases,” Wright elucidates, “Henry Parsons was not a small man; he was a giant.”) The book’s cinematic structure—The End of October was written originally as a screenplay and will certainly one day be a prestige miniseries—sends Henry on a tour of far-flung locations while he chases the new Kongoli virus, from Switzerland to Indonesia to Saudi Arabia; he rides in helicopters, private jets, submarines, and even a Hello Kitty–branded pedicab. He delivers dramatic one-liners. (“I’m not just talking about containing a pandemic. I’m talking about saving civilization.”) But even his potent combination of intellectual audacity and a possibly checkered past experimenting with viruses can’t prevent what ensues: the spread of a disease so virulent, it brings down entire governments and kills hundreds of millions of people.
This particular kind of nightmare fodder would have been stressful pre-pandemic; now you might imagine it to be excruciating. Reading The End of October, though, I felt oddly soothed. When things in real life feel appalling, there’s some comfort in reading about all the terrible events that haven’t happened (yet): mass looting and food shortages in the United States, a power cut that wipes out all the data in the cloud, the disintegration of society’s fabric. And for everything that Wright seems to have anticipated, he gets one thing strikingly, consolingly wrong. Human nature, in the novel, is inherently savage. “All the virtues—loyalty, patriotism, courage, honesty, faith, compassion, you name it—are just social constructs, patches to cover the naked barbarism that is at our core,” a government employee named Matilda Nichinsky thinks in one scene. Granted, Tildy is a cynic and a nihilist, but as Kongoli devastates the U.S., her take on human frailty is borne out. The scenes that haunted me the most in the book weren’t the ones with lungs frothily disintegrating into pink mush or world leaders bleeding on camera from their eyeballs. They were the moments when people took advantage of the chaos to liberate their most monstrous selves.
Wright, a Pulitzer Prize–winner for his 2006 nonfiction book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, is a dogged reporter who puts his supposed foreknowledge with The End of October down to simple research. “As a writer, I’ve always been more surprised by reality than by imagination, so I try to hew to science, history, and human experience,” he wrote in a recent essay for The New York Times. So much of the story of civilization, he argues, “has been about our struggle to survive in close quarters with one another, which allows pathogens to proliferate.” Put this way, it’s less surprising that a writer saw a pandemic coming and more of a dereliction of duty that governments didn’t. The propulsive plot is counterweighted with rigorous, gracefully presented context on the history and behavior of diseases. Wright calls influenza viruses “beautiful” for their structure and functionality; he compares a cytokine storm, in which the body’s immune reaction destroys itself, to “total war.” Ebola, in Wright’s description, was all the more brutal for being “a disease that specifically targeted love and compassion,” infecting those who kissed, touched, or took care of the afflicted.
But the novel also seems to have started with a particular end point in mind: the degeneration of humanity. As Wright has it, after the director Ridley Scott read Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 apocalyptic novel, The Road, he asked Wright what event might have happened to precipitate such a callous and bestial world, with its cannibalism, infanticide, and wanton misery. The End of October was Wright’s way of filling in the blanks—of sketching out the details of a plausible extinction-level event severe enough to spark total societal breakdown.
The coronavirus crisis has been devastating, particularly for the frontline doctors and nurses and essential workers who haven’t been able to ride it out from the comfort of their home. The past few months have seen a notable uptick in profiteering, from amateurs hoarding thousands of cases of hand sanitizer to internet scammers to pharmaceutical companies coveting vaccine profits. But the overwhelming individual response to the virus, at least here in New York City, has been one of grief, compassion, and altruism. On daily walks, almost everyone is wearing masks, accepting the fetidness of sweaty face coverings out of the communitarian hope that not breathing on other people might help flatten the curve. People have volunteered their time and energy to buy groceries and medication for the immunocompromised. Doctors and nurses have flown in from all over the country to assist at hospitals with the worst caseloads.
In The End of October, the Kongoli virus corrupts those it doesn’t infect as quickly as those it does. “If I believed in an immortal soul, I would say it is the first organ to be contaminated by disease,” Henry says—somewhat stuffily—in one chapter. His wife, Jill, left at home in Atlanta, where Henry works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, observes that the contagion has destroyed any sense of community that once existed. Other natural disasters, she remembers, prompted humanitarian outreach and collective efforts to help. But disease, by its nature, makes people afraid of one another. It destroys the essence of human connection.
In the real world, though, some new community threads have managed to grow. It’s possible that, confronted with a virus as lethal as Wright’s fictional one, more people might submit to their basest instincts. But the worst responses to this pandemic so far haven’t been uniquely cruel so much as predictably craven: politicians pandering to the false idol of the economy, hucksters hawking colloidal silver and Clorox cocktails. We’re seeing more of the same lamentable bigotry, the same abuse and oppression, enabled by a government of truly unimaginable incompetence. Still, we haven’t seen the kind of mass individualistic cruelty and destruction of empathy that Wright’s and McCarthy’s most apocalyptic scenarios envisage. Most people have shown themselves to be far better than The End of October imagined and far braver and kinder than many of those in power, and there’s at least some comfort to be found in that.