The problem with the pandemic plot
By Alexandra Alter
Twelve years ago, Sigrid Nunez published “Salvation City,” a novel about a boy whose parents die from a mysterious respiratory illness. She conjured a near-future America that seemed like a far-off dystopia, one where a rapidly spreading virus upends society, as schools close, supplies of hand sanitizer and surgical masks dwindle, understaffed hospitals run out of ventilators, and new viral variants emerge, causing infections to surge and recede in waves.
Nunez, who based her fictional illness on the 1918 flu, figured that “Salvation City” would be her one and only pandemic novel.
Then history repeated itself, and she found the subject was unavoidable. Last winter, holed up in her small apartment in downtown Manhattan, she started writing a novel that features a woman living in New York during the first wave of coronavirus infections, who starts to fray from the unrelenting fear and uncertainty.
“It seemed too soon to be writing about the pandemic, which we were living through, but it also seemed hard to be writing about anything else,” Nunez said. “If it’s set now, it has to be part of the story.”
More than two years into a global health crisis that has reshaped society and daily life, COVID-19 is leaving an inexorable mark on literary fiction. In a new crop of books, celebrated authors like Anne Tyler, Ian McEwan, Isabel Allende, Louise Erdrich and Roddy Doyle are exploring, sometimes reluctantly, the emotional and psychological reverberations of the pandemic.
Many of the new pandemic-themed novels seek to capture the texture of daily life in the COVID-19 era: the corrosive effect of isolation, the tedium and monotony of lockdowns and quarantines, the strain on relationships, the way the virus changed casual interactions and ripped some families apart and brought others together.
The pandemic is also presenting new narrative and artistic pitfalls. Some writers worry a pandemic plot might drive away readers who want to escape our grim reality, but ignoring it might feel jarringly unrealistic. Others wonder if it’s too soon to re-create the atmosphere of a tragedy that’s still killing thousands of people every day. Then there’s the awkward narrative problem of how to turn what some have termed the “boring apocalypse” — a period of stasis that, for the most fortunate, has been defined by staying home and doing nothing — into a gripping story.
Given how much the virus has dominated our lives, a flood of pandemic fiction is perhaps inevitable. And several authors said they believe it is necessary, noting that unlike the fire hose of news coverage about COVID-19, which can leave readers feeling numb and overwhelmed, fiction can provide a way to process the emotional upheaval of the past two years.
“I had no particular ambition to write about the pandemic, but it was like a giant tree trunk that fell across my path,” said Ian McEwan, whose forthcoming novel, “Lessons,” follows a British man from the 1940s to his twilight years in 2021, when he’s living alone in London during lockdown, looking back on his life. “It’s going to be in literary novels simply because there’s no way around it, if you’re writing a socially realist novel.”
Anne Tyler’s “French Braid,” which comes out next month, follows a Baltimore family from the late 1950s to the upheaval of 2020, when a retired couple finds unexpected joy after their adult son and their grandson come to live with them to ride out the pandemic. Nell Freudenberger’s novel in progress, tentatively titled “The Limits,” explores the feelings of dread and uncertainty that the virus unleashed, and features a teenager struggling to balance remote learning with caring for a child, a biologist unnerved by climate change and a doctor who feels helpless as he treats COVID-19 patients.
In Isabel Allende’s “Violeta,” the narrator’s life is bookended by two pandemics, the Spanish flu and the coronavirus, a “strange symmetry” that she reflects on as she’s dying in isolation. “The experience of the whole planet frozen in place because of a virus is so extraordinary that I am sure it will be used extensively in literature,” Allende said in an email. “It is one of those events that mark an era.”
There’s been no shortage of pandemic-themed content, from TV shows and documentaries, to long-form nonfiction, poetry and short stories. But novels often take longer to gestate, and the first wave of pandemic-inflected literary fiction is arriving at a nebulous moment, when the virus has started to feel both mundane and insurmountable, and it’s unclear when the crisis will end, making it an unwieldy subject for fiction writers.
“You couldn’t yet have the great coronavirus novel, because we don’t know how this story ends yet,” said writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn.
As the first trickle of COVID-centric novels began last year, some critics questioned whether the pandemic could yield worthwhile literature. “I am a little fearful of the onslaught of COVID-19 fiction heading toward us in the coming years,” reviewer Sam Sacks wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
Last November, when English author Sarah Moss published her novel “The Fell” — about a woman who defies a mandatory quarantine order after she’s exposed to COVID-19 — a handful of reviewers in Britain panned it for re-creating the grueling experience of lockdown.
“There was a lot of finger wagging and saying, It’s too soon,” Moss said. “Quite a few of the reviews said no one is going to want to read a pandemic novel.” Still, Moss said, many readers related to the claustrophobia, anxiety and boredom that her characters endure in “The Fell,” which will be released in the United States next month. “Some people are enormously comforted to find that we can begin to make art of this,” she said.
Plagues have been a plot staple throughout literary history, from the “Iliad” and the Bible to classics like Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year.” But earlier pandemics have also shown the difficulty of drawing literary inspiration from deadly viral outbreaks.
Very little noteworthy fiction was written in direct response to the 1918 flu, which killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people but left barely a mark in the literary record. Most writers at the time avoided the topic or referenced it only obliquely, perhaps because it followed on the heels of World War I and, unlike a rousing war story, an invisible virus that strikes indiscriminately doesn’t make for a dramatic narrative.
“The flu drops out of cultural memory,” said Elizabeth Outka, author of “Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature.”
That’s unlikely to happen with the coronavirus, which has already yielded a small but growing body of literary fiction, including social satires like Gary Shteyngart’s “Our Country Friends,” and Doyle’s new collection, “Life Without Children,” which evokes life during Ireland’s stringent lockdowns. In an interview from his home in Dublin, Doyle said he found it comforting to put “the misery of the last two years to some imaginative use,” with stories about everyday people surviving the once unimaginable.
“I’d rather not have lived through it, or be living through it, but it happened, so use it,” he said. “You’re telling a story that couldn’t be told in other circumstances.”
The relatively glacial production cycle for fiction is also creating obstacles for writers who, like the rest of us, can’t predict what life will look like in the coming years, and worry that pandemic references might make their novels feel dated.
Rebecca Makkai was writing a new novel about a murder at a New Hampshire boarding school when coronavirus hit, and was flummoxed by how to deal with COVID-19. She decided to sidestep it by setting the story in 2018, with another timeline for the murder trial in the spring of 2022, when she assumed everything would be back to normal. Then 2022 arrived, and the virus was still wreaking havoc.
“I went through and halfheartedly slapped a bunch of face masks on people,” she said. Even as she added new pandemic-era details, she tried to keep coronavirus in the background of the novel, which is due out next year.
“You can’t do too much, because this book is not about that,” Makkai said. “It has to be set now, but it’s not a pandemic novel.”
Weike Wang had just finished a draft of her new novel, “Joan Is Okay,” which centers on an Asian American emergency room doctor in New York, when COVID-19 erupted. She decided to revise the story to reflect how the virus overwhelmed hospitals, but worried it might feel out of place once everything was back to normal.
“I was thinking, what am I doing, when this book comes out maybe no one will remember this pandemic,” she recalled.
After a dozen drafts, she found a way to make the pandemic part of her character’s experience as a doctor without making it the core of the narrative.
Still, Wang worries that until the pandemic itself is over, it will remain a plot problem. Lately, she’s been writing short fiction, and is struggling with whether her characters should do things like go to dinner parties, meet friends for drinks or see a therapist face to face.
“I would love to write a story that doesn’t have the word pandemic,” she said, “but I haven’t written one yet.”