Plague Stories Are Cold Comfort: On the Limits of Fiction

May 11, 2020
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We’re in the middle of experiencing COVID-19 and we’re not sure how it will end. In the face of this deep uncertainty, we seek indications about how things might turn out. The powers and limitations of fiction, especially fiction about pandemics, are on full display today. Fiction about past outbreaks, with completed story arcs and rounded out finishes, show us endings when we are still in the middle of an outbreak. Even fiction about a pandemic that is published into the teeth of a pandemic can’t show us whether it will end the same way as ours.

Fiction is enormously powerful in drawing today’s circumstances, but is also limited. Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, published at the end of April, is about a novel virus. The story resonates with today, but it’s also over and finished while our story continues. Back in 2014, Kathleen McInnis laid out why she thinks “the need for creative thinking has never been greater” to counter national security challenges and realities that are multifaceted, varied, and immensely complicated. Richard Fontaine calls on policymakers to read fiction because the deep and sustained engagement with other minds promoted by novels is necessary for responding to crisis. I’d add that fiction creates the urge to know what comes next, which involves thinking about what might come next. These particular capacities are especially important now because the very nature of living through COVID-19 means engaging with “what now,” and “what next,” and “how does this end.”



Stories about past pandemics get a lot of attention today. Popular streaming services feature Outbreak and Contagion. Counterpart, a Starz series from 2017-18 starring J. K. Simmons that marries a spy story to the story of a flu epidemic, is also making a comeback. In early March, the New York Times suggested what to read today in part because “[p]ublishers are reporting booming sales for books whose fictional plots revolve around pandemics” and explains that this surge may be because “you might find comfort in dipping into a fictional worst-case scenario — and, with some of them, seeing how the characters make it out alive.” The New York Times isn’t alone in compiling this kind of list. Other publications, including Esquire, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, the BBC, and Electric Literature, made their own. Virginia Heffernan in Wired explains how literature of past plague works in today’s age of plague: “the literature of plagues confronts inevitability along with reeling what-ifs.” Even so, not everyone feels able to read at the moment. Alongside a resurgence in reading is also writing about the impossibility of reading these days, of the difficulty of sustained attention to other lives and societies in a time of crisis; Sophie Vershbow’sI Cannot Read a Book Right Now and I am Not Alone” is a standout. Novelist Charles Yu, in “The Pre-Pandemic Universe was the Fiction,” engages these issues in especially interesting ways by suggesting, “What the current crisis and our responses to it, both individual and institutional, have reminded us of is not the unreality of the pandemic, but the illusions shattered by it.” Pre-pandemic stories provide a possible glimpse into how this disease will run its course even as the gaps of time and place are stubbornly and irreducibly present. Most of all, though, stories about virulence that we in the twenty-first century turn to provide ending, closure, and rounding out; they promise and deliver finality.

It’s also the case that we’re looking ahead to as-yet unwritten stories about COVID-19. On March 14, Quinta Jurecic tweeted, “There’s going to be some really interesting fiction that comes out of this.” Jurecic herself used fiction to make sense of a contemporary moment when she wrote on the Mueller Report as detective fiction. On April 2, Bill Grueskin asked Twitter, “What’s the first sentence of the best novel that will be written about this epidemic?” More that twenty-two thousand people responded.  Projections for what future writing about this time will look like are being written even before the story of COVID-19 is over. The most confident prediction came in The Guardian: “When the definitive history of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the date 20 January 2020 is certain to feature prominently.” Sloane Crosley advocates waiting to write about the novel coronavirus on the basis that “it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back in everyone’s faces” even as she describes the stories she’d like to see come out of this: “They will slow things down. They will put the new world in sharp relief.”

Lawrence Wright’s The End of October isn’t just eerily of the moment or disconcertingly ahead of its time. It’s also a complete story about a virus; it’s a novel with an ending that can be read during a time when the ending around COVID-19 is still scary and uncertain and anxiety-producing. Over roughly 400 pages, The End of October traces the appearance and spread of the novel Kongoli virus. The similarities between the world of the book and our own makes Wright’s novel forward-looking; or, as Wright himself puts it, “I’ve been accused of being uncannily prescient before.” And yet, when Wright lays out his own vision of his book, he emphasizes not his ability to see the future, but his careful course of study, and of his encounters with the past: “What may seem like prophecy is actually the result of research… I try to hew to science, history, and human experience.”

Of course, fiction isn’t simply situated in the time it’s produced or the time it’s read (or watched or listened to), it also controls narrative time as its story unfolds. Stories work hard to arrive at their endings. Detective novels offer particularly vivid examples of how narrative time both looks to the future and looks backwards; mysteries forecast outcomes and revise those forecasts. The general pattern of a detective story is that a crime occurs, suspects are identified and then exonerated until finally one criminal is found. The long, involved process of picking out suspects, and figuring out whether they could have or would have wanted to do the crime, creates a story that involves multiple plausible paths that lead to multiple plausible endings. The act of projecting ahead, and the act of revising projections when new information surfaces, makes both the narrative itself and the act of reading the narrative a process. Moving through a story isn’t all forward-looking all the time; the process loops.

To understand how The End of October can speak to issues today, it’s important to understand how Wright fits together the elements of his novel. Wright has a knack for making the people he writes about emerge out of complicated networks of social, political, professional, religious, bureaucratic, national, and familial relationships; he also shows them trying to reform and remake those relationships. His nonfiction — including The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State and Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David — showcases this, and it’s also on display in The End of October. Henry Parsons dominates the story. Early in the novel Parsons’s character is established: “In the never-ending war on emerging diseases, Henry Parsons was not a small man; he was a giant.” Parsons also emerges throughout the novel in his roles as an atheist, father, husband, son, co-worker, mentor, and mentee. Henry occupies a lot of narrative space and certainly not every character is placed in as many different roles, but he is not unique in The End of October for inhabiting so many. A Saudi prince is described in a similar vein: “Majid wore a military uniform. Once again he seemed like a different man entirely from the doctor in Western clothes whom Henry had first met years ago or the prince in his robes with whom Henry had worked day and night in the kingdom.”

The novel moves around the globe as it travels from office spaces in Switzerland to a home in Atlanta to Indonesia to Saudi Arabia during the Hajj onto a submarine and more. Wright weaves together the physical description of a place with its social significance. For instance, he writes, “The Quill Bar in the Jefferson was a famous meeting spot for the power brokers of the capital, with its brass lamps, plush leather chairs, and mahogany-paneled walls adorned with portraits of the presidents.”

The novel sets multiple storylines in motion. By and large they all center on the virus. There’s the question of whether Henry will be able to stop its spread, of whether he’ll be able to help people who are infected, and whether a second wave of pandemic is in the offing. There are also questions around the origins of the virus, of why Russia seems to experience relatively low rates of infection, and of how the social upheaval caused by the pandemic interacts with a cyberattack on critical U.S. infrastructure. Woven into these narrative threads is Henry himself; his experiences with his parents, his prior professional affiliations and relationships, and research and actions that he previously undertook. Nevertheless, Henry’s arc, his transformations, and his ultimate ending are part of the consequential story of how the virus and the response to it make and remake worlds.

Existing prejudices, power structures, geopolitical tensions, and ongoing kinetic actions facilitate and intersect with the spread of the virus. Government-sanctioned homophobia in Indonesia allows its initial dissemination. And while some of these structures persist throughout the book, Wright creates a world of thorough-going social, cultural, and political upheaval in the wake of the virus. At one point, Jill, Henry’s wife, reflects on the difference between living through hurricanes as a young girl and the experience of Kongoli flu, “The contagion had destroyed any sense of community…. Neighbors were afraid of each other. They hoarded food. It seemed like everyone was armed — gun shops were the last businesses to close their doors.” The End of October is not a novel of restoration, of societies snapping back into place. Nor is it a novel of reformation, of societies reshaping themselves to progressive ends. It imagines how the world reimagines and remakes itself in the wake of disease.

The End of October dramatizes one outcome of a pandemic. The desire to look back to fiction that is already written speaks to a desire to know what will come next with COVID-19. Looking to the future by forecasting the writing that might come from the current outbreak is also an expression of a desire to know how this all ends — because by peeking into a future that hasn’t yet come to pass we can imagine what might come our way in the end.



Katherine Voyles is a Ph.D. in English who writes on issues of national security in culture for publications including Foreign Policy, Task & Purpose, and The Strategy Bridge. She tweets from @1977khv.

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