Less than a century after the Black Death descended into Europe and killed 75 million people—as much as 60 percent of the population (90% in some places) dead in the five years after 1347—an anonymous Alsatian engraver with the fantastic appellation of “Master of the Playing Cards” saw fit to depict St. Sebastian: the patron saint of plague victims. Making his name, literally, from the series of playing cards he produced at the moment when the pastime first became popular in Germany, the engraver decorated his suits with bears and wolves, lions and birds, flowers and woodwoses. The Master of Playing Cards’s largest engraving, however, was the aforementioned depiction of the unfortunate third-century martyr who suffered by order of the Emperor Diocletian. A violent image, but even several generations after the worst of the Black Death, and Sebastian still resonated with the populace, who remembered that “To many Europeans, the pestilence seemed to be the punishment of a wrathful Creator,” as John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time.
The cult of Sebastian had grown in the years between the Black Death and the engraving, and during that interim the ancient martyr had become associated with plague victims. His suffering reminded people of their own lot—the sense that more hardship was inevitable, that the appearance of purpled buboes looked like arrows pulled from Sebastian’s eviscerated flesh after his attempted execution, and most of all the indiscrimination of which portion of bruised skin would be arrow-pierced seeming as random as who should die from plague. Produced roughly around 1440, when any direct memory of the greatest bubonic plague had long-since passed (even while smaller reoccurrences occurred for centuries), the Master of the Playing Cards presents a serene Sebastian, tied to a short tree while four archers pummel him with said arrows. Unlike more popular depictions of the saint, such as Andrea Mantegna’s painting made only four decades later, or El Greco and Peter Paul Reubens’s explicitly lithe and beautiful Sebastians made in respectively the 16th and 17th centuries, the engraver gives us a calm, almost bemused, martyr. He has an accepting smile on his face. Two arrows protrude from his puckered flesh. More are clearly coming. Sebastian didn’t just become associated with the plague as a means of saintly intercession, but also because in his narrative there was the possibility of metaphor to make sense of the senseless. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul that the “Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century and subsequent outbreaks…had, of course, cast a long, dark shadow, and their aftermath was the culture of the Dance of Death, the worm-corrupted cadaver, the skull and crossbones and the charnel house.” All of said accoutrement, which endures even today from the cackling skulls of Halloween to the pirates’ flag, serve to if not make pandemic comprehensible, then to at least tame it a bit. Faced with calamity, this is what the stories told and the images made were intended to do. Religion supplied the largest storehouse of ready-made narrative with which to tell stories, even while the death toll increasingly made traditional belief untenable. John Hatcher writes in The Black Death: A Personal History that many lost “faith in their religion and…[abandoned] themselves to fate,” where fatality is as unpredictable as where an arrow will land.
A different narrative, though not unrelated, was depicted 40 years later. Made by the Swedish painter Albertus Pictor, and applied to the white walls of the rustic Täby Church north of Stockholm, the mural presents what appears to be a wealthy merchant playing a (losing) game of chess against Death. Skeletal and grinning, Death appears with the same boney twisted smile that is underneath the mask of every human face, the embodiment and reminder of everyone’s ultimate destination. Famously the inspiration for director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, Pictor’s picture is a haunting memento mori, a very human evocation of the desperate flailing against the inevitable. Both pictures tell stories about the plague, about the lengths we’ll go to survive. They convey how in pandemic predictability disappears; they are narratives about the failure of narratives themselves. What both of them court are Brother Fate and his twin Sister Despair. The wages of fortune are the subject of which cards you’re dealt and the tension of strategy and luck when you avoid having your bishop or rook taken. Life may be a game, but none of us are master players and sometimes we’re dealt a very bad hand.
There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics. What marks the literature of plague, pestilence, and pandemic is a commitment to try and forge if not some sense of explanation, than at least a sense of meaning out of the raw experience of panic, horror, and despair. Narrative is an attempt to stave off meaninglessness, and in the void of the pandemic, literature serves the purpose of trying, however desperately, to stop the bleeding. It makes sense that the most famous literary work to come out of the plague is Giovani Boccaccio’s 1353 The Decameron, with its frame conceit of 100 bawdy, hilarious, and erotic stories told by seven women and three men over 10 days while they’re quarantined in a Tuscan villa outside Florence. As pandemic rages through northern Italy, Boccaccio’s characters distract themselves with funny, dirty stories, but the anxious intent from those young women and men self-exiled within cloistered walls is that “Every person born into this world has a natural right to sustain, preserve and defend” their own life, so that storytelling becomes its own palliative to drown out the howling of those dying on the other side of the ivy-covered stone walls.
Pandemic literature exists not just to analyze the reasons for the pestilence—that may not even be its primary purpose. Rather the telling of stories is a reminder that sense still exists somewhere, that if there is not meaning outside of the quarantine zone there’s at least meaning within our invented stories. Literature is a reclamation against that which illness represents—that the world is not our own. As the narrator of Albert Camus’s The Plague says as disease ravages the town of Oran in French Algeria, there is an “element of abstraction and unreality in misfortune. But when an abstraction starts to kill you, you have to get to work on it.” When confronted with the erraticism of etiology, the arbitrariness of infection, the randomness of illness, we must contend with the reality that we are not masters of this world. We have seemingly become such lords of nature that we’ve altered the very climate and geologists have named our epoch after humanity itself, and yet a cold virus can have more power than an army. Disease is not metaphor, symbol, or allegory, it is simply something that kills you without consideration. Story is a way of trying to impart a bit of that consideration that nature ignores.
The necessity of literature in the aftermath of pandemic is movingly illustrated in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. Mostly taking place several years after the “Georgian Flu” has killed the vast majority of humans on the planet and civilization has collapsed, Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors as they travel by caravan across a scarred Great Lakes region on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border. “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world,” Mandel writes, “but that was a lie.” Station Eleven is, in some sense, a love letter to a lost world, which is to say the world (currently) of the reader. Our existence “had never been impersonal at all,” she writes, and the novel gives moving litanies of all that was lost in the narrative’s apocalypse, from chlorinated swimming pools to the mindlessness of the Internet. There is a tender love of every aspect of our stupid world, so that how the crisis happened can only be explained because of the fact that we were so interconnected: “There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.” As survivors struggle to rebuild, it’s the job of narrative to supply meaning to that which disease has taken away, or as the motto painted on the wagon of the traveling caravan has it: “Survival is insufficient.” The need to tell stories, to use narrative to prove some continuity with a past obliterated by pandemic, is the motivating impulse of English professor James Smith, the main character in Jack London’s largely forgotten 1912 post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague. With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, London imagines a 2013 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called the “Red Death.” Infectious, fast-moving, and fatal, the plague wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, so that some six decades after the pestilence first appears, Smith can scarcely believe that his memories of a once sophisticated civilization aren’t illusions. Still, the former teacher is compelled to tell his grandchildren about the world before the Red Death, even if he sometimes imagines that they are lies. “The fleeting systems lapse like foam,” writes London, “That’s it—foam, and fleeting. All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam.”
The Scarlet Plague ends in a distant 2073, the same year that Mary Shelley’s 1826 forerunner of the pandemic novel The Last Man was set. Far less famous than Shelley’s Frankenstein, her largely forgotten novel is arguably just as groundbreaking. As with Station Eleven, narrative and textuality are the central concerns of the novel; when the last man himself notes that “I have selected a few books; the principal are Homer and Shakespeare—But the libraries of the world are thrown open to me,” there is the sense that even in the finality of his position there is a way in which words can still define our reality, anemic though it may now be. Displaying the trademark uneasiness about the idea of fictionality that often marked 19th-century novels, Shelley’s conceit is that what you’re reading are transcriptions of parchment containing ancient oracular predictions that the author herself discovered while exploring caves outside of Naples that had once housed the temple of the Cumae Sibylline.
Her main character is a masculinized roman a clef for Shelley herself, an aristocrat named Lionel Verney who lives through the emergence of global pandemic in 2073 up through the beginning of the 22nd century when he earns the titular status of The Last Man. All of Shelley’s characters are stand-ins for her friends, the luminaries of the rapidly waning Romantic age, from Lord Byron who is transformed into Lord Randolph, a passionate if incompetent leader of England who bungles that nation’s response to the pandemic, to her own husband, Percy, who becomes Adrian, the son of the previous king who has chosen rather to embrace republicanism. By the time Verney begins his solitary pilgrimage across a desolated world, with only the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare, and an Alpine sheepdog whom he adopts, he still speaks in a first person addressed to an audience of nobody. “Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirts of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold…the LAST MAN.” Thus, in a world devoid of people, Verney becomes the book and the inert world becomes the reader.
The Last Man’s first-person narration, ostensibly directed to a world absent of people who could actually read it, belies a deeper reason for the existence of language than mere communication—to construct a world upon the ruins, to bear a type of witness, even if it’s solitary. Language need not be for others; that it’s for ourselves is often good enough. Literature thus becomes affirmation; more than that it becomes rebellion, a means of saying within pandemic that we once existed, and that microbe and spirochete can’t abolish our voices, even if bodies should wither. That’s one of the most important formulations of Tony Kushner’s magisterial play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Arguably the most canonical text to emerge from the horror of the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s three-hour play appears in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” and it weaves two narrative threads, the story of wealthy WASP scion Prior Walter’s HIV diagnosis and his subsequent abandonment by his scared lover, Louis Ironson, and the arrival to New York City of the closeted Mormon Republican Joe Pitt, who works as a law clerk and kindles an affair with Louis.
Angels in America combines subjects as varied as Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, Kabbalistic and Mormon cosmology (along with a baroque system of invented angels), the reprehensible record of the closeted red-baiting attorney and Joseph McCarthy-acolyte Roy Cohn, and the endurance of the gay community struggling against the AIDS epidemic and their activism opposing the quasi-genocidal non-policy of conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan. If all that sounds heady, Kushner’s play came from the estimably pragmatic issue of how a community survives a plague. Born from the pathbreaking work of activist groups like ACT UP, Angels in America has, because of its mythological concerns, an understanding that pandemics and politics are inextricably connected. In answering who deserves treatment and how such treatment will be allocated we’ve already departed from the realm of disinterested nature. “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past,” says Louis, “there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.” Throughout Angels in America there is an expression of the human tragedy of pandemic, the way that beautiful young people in the prime of life can be murdered by their own bodies. Even Cohn, that despicable quasi-fascist, who evidences so little of the human himself, is entitled to some tenderness when upon his death kaddish is recited for him—by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, the supposed Soviet spy whom the lawyer was instrumental in the execution of.At the end of the play, Prior stands at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with all the attendant religious implications of that place’s name, and intones that “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore… We will be citizens. The time has come.” In telling stories, there is not just a means of constructing meaning, or even endurance, but indeed of survival. Fiction is not the only means of expressing this, of course, or even necessarily the most appropriate. Journalist Randy Shilts accomplished something similar to Kushner in his classic account And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which soberly, clinically, and objectively chronicled the initial outbreaks of the disease among the San Francisco gay community.In a manner not dissimilar to Daniel Defoe in his classic A Journal of the Plague Year (even while that book is fictionalized), Shilts gives an epidemiological account of the numbers, letting the horror speak through science more effectively than had it been rendered in poetry. Such staidness is its own requirement and can speak powerfully to the reality of the event, whereby “the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic…[was that] By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it,” the shame of a nation whereby Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes would actually publicly laugh at the idea of a “gay plague.” Shilts waited until he finished And the Band Played On to be tested for HIV himself, worried that a positive diagnosis would alter his journalistic objectivity. He would die of AIDS related complications in 1994, having borne witness to the initial years of the epidemic, abjuring the cruel inaction of government policy with the disinfectant of pure facts.
Most people who read about pandemics, however, turn to pulpier books: paperback airport novels like Michael Crichton’s clinical fictionalized report about an interstellar virus The Andromeda Strain, Robin Cook’s nightmare fuel about a California Ebola pandemic in Outbreak, and Stephen King’s magisterial post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, which I read in the summer of 1994 and remains the longest sustained narrative I think that I’ve ever engaged with. Because these books are printed on cheap paper and have the sorts of garish covers intended more for mass consumption than prestige, they’re dismissed as prurient or exploitative. Ever the boring distinctions between genre and literary fiction, for though the pace of suspense may distinguish entertainment as integral as aesthetics, they too have just as much to say about the fear and experience of illness as do any number of explicitly more “serious” works.
The Stand is an exemplary example of just what genre fiction is capable of, especially when it comes to elemental fears surrounding plague that seem to have been somehow encoded within our cultural DNA for more than seven centuries. Written as an American corollary to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Stand depicts a United States completely unraveled one summer after the containment loss of a government “Super-Flu” bioweapon nicknamed “Captain Trips.” In that aftermath, King presents a genuinely apocalyptic struggle between good and evil that’s worthy of Revelation, but intrinsic to this tale of pestilence is the initial worry that accompanies a scratchy throat, watery eyes, a sniffling nose, and a cough that seemingly won’t go away. If anything, King’s vision is resolutely in keeping with the medieval tradition of fortuna so expertly represented by the Master of the Playing Cards or Pictor, a wisdom that when it comes to disease “Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again,” as King writes.
Far from being exploitative, of only offering readers the exquisite pleasure of vicariously imagining all of society going to complete shit, there is a radical empathy at the core of much genre fiction. Readers of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novels The Walking Dead (or the attendant television series) or viewers of George Romero’s brilliant zombie classics may assume that they’ll always be the ones to survive Armageddon, but those works can force us into a consideration of the profound contingency of our own lives. Cynics might say that the enjoyment derived from zombie narratives is that they provide a means of imagining that most potent of American fantasies—the ability to shoot your neighbor with no repercussions. More than that, however, and I think that they state a bit of the feebleness of our civilization.
This is what critic Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor about how pandemic supplies “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide,” so that products and viruses alike can freely move in a globalized world. The latter can then disrupt the former, where plague proves the precariousness of the supply lines that keep food on grocery store shelves and electricity in the socket, the shockingly narrow band separating hot breakfast and cold beer from the nastiness, brutishness, and shortness of life anarchic. Such is the grim knowledge of Max Brook’s World War Z where “They teach you how to resist the enemy, how to protect your mind and spirit. They don’t teach you how to resist your own people.” If medieval art and literature embraced the idea of fate, whereby it’s impossible to know who shall be first and who shall be last once the plague rats have entered port, than contemporary genre fiction has a similar democratic vision, a knowledge that wealth, power, and prestige can mean little after you’ve been coughed on. When the Black Death came to Europe, no class was spared; it took the sculptor Andrea Pisano and the banker Giovanni Villani, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the poet Jeauan Gethin, the mystic Richard Rolle and the philosopher William of Ockham, and the father, mother, and friends of Boccaccio. Plague upended society more than any revolution could, and there was a strange egalitarianism to the paupers’ body-pit covered in lye. Sontag, again, writes that “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Such equality motivated the greatest of medieval artistic themes to emerge from the Black Death, that of the Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death.” In such imagery, painters and engravers would depict paupers and princes, popes and peasants, all linking hands with grinning brown skeletons with hair clinging to mottled pates and cadaverous flesh hanging from bones, dancing in a circle across a bucolic countryside. In the anonymous Totentanz of 1460, the narrator writes “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Scepter and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” During the Black Death, the fearful and the deniers alike explained the disease as due to a confluence of astrological phenomenon or noxious miasma; they claimed it was punishment for sin or they blamed religious and ethnic minorities within their midst. To some, the plague was better understood as “hoax” than reality. The smiling skulls of the Danse Macabre laugh at that sort of cowardly narcissism, for they know that pestilence is a feature of our reality and reality has a way of collecting its debts.
Illness sees no social stratification—it comes for bishop and authoritarian theocrat, king and germaphobic president alike. The final theme of the literature of pandemic, born from the awareness that this world is not ours alone, is that we can’t avert our eyes from the truth, no matter how cankered and ugly it may be in the interim. Something can be both true and senseless. The presence of disease is evidence of that. When I was little, my grandma told me stories about when she was a girl during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that took 75 million people. She described how, in front of the courthouse of her small Pennsylvania town, wagons arrived carting coffins for those who perished. Such memories are recounted to create meaning, to bear witness, to make sense, to warn, to exclaim that we were here, that we’re still here. Narrative can preserve and remake the world as it falls apart. Such is the point of telling any story. Illness reminds us that the world isn’t ours; literature let’s us know that it is—sometimes. Now—take stock. Be safe. Most of all, take care of each other. And wash your hands.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
My reading year was interrupted by the caesura of an interstate move, as we traded in lobster rolls for Maryland blue crabs, Legal Seafood for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Leonard Bernstein for Duke Ellington, and the shadow of Harvard University Memorial Hall for that of the Capitol dome. Don’t take the last sentence as an obnoxious humble-brag; I didn’t attend Harvard, though I often caught the T near there, as now I regularly commute underneath the Capitol South Metro Station, and that proximity to my “betters” is enough for me to fart a bit higher than my posterior. Now that I’m a proud denizen of the District, as us locals apparently call it, I’m not just a citizen who is constitutionally prohibited from voting for my own congresspeople, but also a resident of America’s unheralded literary capital.
Where else have Americans so often fervently oriented both their dreams and increasingly nightmares? What other hundred square miles (well, with a bite taken out of the bottom of it) has so clearly mapped onto the geography of national aspirations? Who doesn’t basically know the shape of the Mall, the look of the Lincoln Memorial, the feel of the White House? New York is the only other city I’ve lived in to give the same sense of spatial “fame-overload,” as perambulations take you by any number of structures so iconic in their import that you can’t help but develop a continual vertigo.
As with my retrospective last year, I’m going to limit my consideration of books read in 2019 to those I’ve taken out from my local library, whether near Cambridge or in Capitol Hill (also, support your local library). In the interests of dutiful fairness, I’m not mentioning any of the exceptional books that I already reviewed this year. I’m also making one alteration; previously I limited myself to focusing only on novels. This year, with the logic that our social reality is as disturbing and surrealistic as any fabulist gothic, I’ve decided to make an exception for one class of nonfiction by including books on politics. Chief among these was the gorgeous Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain. Justly celebrated for his brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, which smashed American idols from militarism to sports-obsession with a deft empathy (not an attribute often associated with smashing), Beautiful Country Burn Again heralds Fountain’s return to journalism.
Since the 2016 election, certain elite publications have taken to reading the tea-leaves of American malaise, going on what some wags have terms “red-neck safaris” so as to better understand the sentiments of those of us who originally come from “flyover country.” Texas-born Fountain understands that the reality is often far more complicated, and he provides a distressing, heart-breaking, poignant month-by-month reading of the election that saw nascent authoritarianism sweep into Washington. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” Fountain writes, “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more likes, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.”
Disorienting as well as disturbing to read the account of recent history which all of us lived. Fountain has somehow defamiliarized it, however, and the rhetoric of retrospective history strikes us in its sheer nightmarish surrealism. Turning to historical and economic analyses, but filtered through the consciousness of a poet, Fountain’s account isn’t that of other classic campaign works like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 or Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey. Fountain isn’t embedded with any campaign; he doesn’t eat barbecue at Iowa state fairs or whoopie pies in New Hampshire. He’s an observer like the rest of us, and somehow Beautiful Country Burn Again is all the more powerful because of it.
William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” If I can stretch my amendment that allowed for political non-fiction to include poetry as an example therein, holding to the position that poetry may not be factual in the same way as journalism, but it is often more truthful, than the most powerful book on current events that I read this year was Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.
Because Hayes, currently a professor at New York University and the poetry editor at The New York Times Magazine, was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon when I got my Masters there, I sometimes like to pretend that I actually know him, though the extent of our discourse was me saying hello to him once on the winding, red-bricked stairwell of Baker Hall. Hayes had a mohawk then; the haircut has changed, but in the meantime, he’s gotten a National Book Critics Circle Award, the TS Elliot Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship. No doubt he’ll one day soon (deservedly) get a position as the Library of Congress’ national Poet Laurette of the United States. When I pretended to know Hayes, he was simply a brilliant poet, but since then he’s announced himself as a potentially canonical one. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was in part Hayes’s reaction to the election of you-know-who, but more than that it’s his grappling as a black man with America’s legacy of violent institutional racism. Writing in a poetic form that goes back to Petrarch and defined by Wyatt, Surrey, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, Hayes intones, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” If it’s true that “Poetry is news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound once claimed, then American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has distressingly been news for a long time, in 1619, in 1776, in 1860, in 1960, in 2019.
So upside down is our current moment that politics must of course be explored by that engine of empathy which literary critics long ago deigned to call the “Novel.” Some of these considerations are in the form of historical fiction, some through the vagaries of science fiction, but if poetry like Hayes’s is at one pole of human expression then surely the very opposite must be that of dry, government report. That’s the genre chosen by the political scientist Jeffrey Lewis, who moonlights as director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis’s first “novel” is the surprisingly engaging and pants-shittingly terrifying The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Borrowing the form, feel, and language of actual governmental documents from the “Warren Commission,” the “9/11 Commission Report”, and the “Mueller Report,” Lewis imagines a series of miscalculations, blunders, strategic missteps, and plain political idiocy (in part due to you-know-who) that leads to a brief nuclear exchange that sees the destruction of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the virtual obliteration of North Korea. Added to such horror are the detonation of nuclear warheads over Honolulu, Palm Beach (Mar-a-Lago is a target), Manhattan, and northern Virginia when a missile intended for Washington is a few miles off course. Lewis writes with eerie and prescient verisimilitude that “We present this final report and the recommendations that flow from it mindful that our nation is more divided than ever before, particularly over the question of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the first use of nuclear weapons in more than eight decades—and their first use against the United States of America.” Evoking other examples of “official document” fiction, from Robert Sobel’s textbook from a parallel universe For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga and Max Brooks’s pastiche of Studs Terkel’s reporting World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Lewis novel is among one of the most disturbing I read this year, in part because of its dispassionate, objective tone.
Speculative fiction was also the chosen genre for Leni Zumas’s startling, upsetting, and unnervingly realistic Red Clocks. Yet another representative example of a novel written as part of our ongoing golden age of feminist science fiction, Zumas joins Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdrich and (of course) Margaret Atwood in examining trends regarding reactionary gender relations, reproductive rights, and institutional misogyny by extrapolating out from our current moment to a possible (and believable) near-future. Red Clocks is science fiction for a post-Kavanaugh era, taking place sometime in the next decade or so after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, LGBTQ and single Americans have been denied the right to adopt, and creeping theocratic logic infects even the liberal environs of the Pacific Northwest where the novel is set. The novel is focalized through four major characters: a single high-school teacher and historian approaching middle-age who wants a child but is infertile and is running up against the government’s bans on IVF and adoption by the unmarried; her pregnant teenage student who wants to get an abortion; the wife of one of the teacher’s colleagues who finds herself in a stultifying marriage; and a local midwife with witchy affectations who runs afoul of the increasingly draconian state. One of the strengths of Red Clocks is how deftly it shows the lie that pro-choice politics are anti-pregnancy, and how what lies at the center of any defense of reproductive rights is the freedom to make the best decision for yourself. At the core of Red Clocks is the conviction that women must have their right to bodily autonomy be recognized, and that we don’t have to be living in Gilead to admit that things can get just a little bit worse every day.
If Zumas imagines a not-so-distant future to explore her political themes, then Joshua Furst takes us to the not-so-distant past in Revolutionaries. Evoking recent novels such as Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Furst’s second novel is arguably part of a trend of millennial writers attracted to the political radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while refusing to simply embrace the mythology of the Woodstock Generation as being the primogeniture of all that is just and free. Revolutionaries is narrated by Fred (ne “Freedom”) Snyder, the put-upon, manipulated, emotionally abused, and often ignored son of notorious countercultural radical Lenny Snyder.
“Call me Fred,” the narrator says, “I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” If Revolutionaries were in need of a subtitle, I’d suggest “OK Boomer.” Snyder is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), jailed member of the Chicago Seven, and arguably the anarchic spiritual ancestor of the Dirtbag Left. As with Hoffman, Snyder organizes trollish pranks against the establishment, such as raining dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the petty greed of the brokers who scramble after literal change, or in his demonstration against the Pentagon in which a group of warlocks and witches attempts to levitate the massive structure. He’s idealistic, utopian, and committed to freedom, equality, and justice. Snyder is also occasionally cruel, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unequivocally a terrible father. Revolutionaries neither condemns nor celebrates Snyder, taking him with all of his complexities while asking how any radical is able to be committed equally to both family and their movement.
Recent political history was also the theme of Jennifer duBois’s The Spectators, and as with Furst she excavates the previous decades to give intimations of what the genealogy of our current age might be. The Spectators isn’t interested in hippie hagiography and its discontents, however, preferring rather to toggle between the gritty, dystopian world of New York City in the ’70s when the Bronx was burning and Gerald Ford proverbially told the five boroughs that they could drop dead, and the belle epoque of the mid-’90s when Americans took their first hit of mass marketed infotainment. DuBois’s central, mysterious, almost Gatsby-esque character is Matthew Miller (born Mathias Milgrom), who in the 1993 present of the novel is the host of a day-time talk-show with shades of Jerry Springer. Before his current iteration of peddling shock television—all baby-daddy reveals and Satan-worshiping teens encouraged to brawl in front of a live studio audience—Miller was an idealistic city councilman in New York between the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. His ex-lover Semi recollects that Miller “radiated a subtle electricity—something slight and untraceable that kinectified the air around him—and it was easy to mistake this, then, for the particular dynamism of compassion.” Like the actual Springer, Miller was an idealistic, progressive, crusading politician; unlike the actual Springer he was also a closeted gay man. The Spectators’ attention shifts between Semi in the ’70s and ’80s and his publicist Cel in the ’90s, their two stories converging in the novel’s present as Miller faces a reckoning after it has been revealed that a midwestern school shooter was a fan of his show. DuBois writes with a tremendous humanity, a novelistic consciousness whereby she almost magically occupies with equal aplomb both the experience of young gay men on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s and an anxious career woman who grew up dirt-poor in New England. Within The Spectators something else emerges, a portrait of a nation obsessed with violence, spectacle, and ratings, but where sometimes there may still be something noble, since “compassion took work, he always said, and anyone who told you otherwise wasn’t really trying to be good at it.”
Furst and duBois have written historical fiction of a kind, but they’re just two examples of what’s been a growing crescendo of excellent examples of that often-forlorn genre. Like all of the genres that are too often condescended to or ghettoized, historical fiction has been critically disparaged, passed over as the purview of petticoats and carriages. Yet the last few years have seen an explosion of the form, from Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of New York to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What these titles share is a sense of playfulness within the dungeon that is history, as well as a reverential imitation of the often-labyrinthine prose of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such historical fiction isn’t written as a palliative for the contemporary moment, but rather as an excavation of our fallen, modern age.
Edward Carey’s achingly melancholic Little takes as its subject Marie Grosholtz, an 18th-century Alsatian peasant girl adopted by an esteemed physician who mentors her in the art and science of making realistic wax sculptures of humans. Marie’s autobiography, exemplary and talented as she is, is still from the perspective of one of us commoners, even as she Zelig-like intersects with the great personages and events of her age. Brief appearances of Enlightenment luminaries punctuate Little (as do Carey’s own delightful line drawings), including cameos by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Diderot, and Marat, Napoleon and Josephine (and the latter’s pug), and by the very end, as if to demonstrate the sheer scope of her life, a young writer named Charles Dickens. So begins her account that “In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761…was born a certain undersized baby.” By the conclusion of Little, Marie is known by her married name of Madame Tussaud, and while her children encourage her to embrace a new technology invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, she believes that nothing as ephemeral as photography can replace the warm fleshiness of molded wax.
Across the English Channel from France, and Imogen Hermes Gower describes a fantastic 18th-century world marked by exploration, trade, and mystery, but also by exploitation and cruelty, in her humane and beautiful The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Gower’s maximalist door-stopper of a book tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, comfortable merchant and member of London’s rising bourgeoise, who finds himself in possession of a “mermaid” brought back by one of his sailors from the sundry regions of the globe. Hancock’s London is no less enraptured by spectacle than Matthew Miller’s New York, and so the “mermaid” becomes the linchpin of various schemes, even while the bumbling, good-nature, and fundamentally conservative financier finds himself falling in love with Angelica Neal, a courtesan and adept student of the School of Venus, as if a character right out of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. London in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is described by Gower with almost supernatural precision, “The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current… the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually… Soho.” A mermaid of sorts does eventually arrive in Jonah and Angelica’s life, but she is neither symbol nor synecdoche, metaphor or metonymy, but something else, with the whiff of ineffability about her.
Across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain, and Esi Edugyan imagines a different 18th-century world, though perhaps no less wondrous, even if similarly marked by exploitation and cruelty in her equally humane and beautiful Washington Black. Since her stunning debut Half-Blood Blues, which imagines the fate of a biracial jazz musician living through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the Canadian novelist has become one of the most lyrical interpreters of race, identity, and the troubled legacies of history. Washington Black arrives as one of the greatest fictional accounts of slavery’s too-oft ignored role in the establishment of the “New World,” recalling both Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, if choosing to hew away from those books’ parodic sentiments towards a more baroque, quasi-magical realism.
Edugyan’s titular George Washington Black is born enslaved on the Caribbean island of Barbados, witness to the unspeakable cruelties of a sugar plantation overseen by a British master. When Washington is indentured to the master’s brother, an aspiring scientist with an interest in hot-air balloon transportation, as well as being a secret abolitionist, it provides him with a means of acquiring his freedom, which propels the narrative of Edugyan’s ingenious picaresque. Washington, in a manner that made him more deserving of his name than the man whom his master had ironically christened him after, was “of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith that the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” Washington Black, never content to obscure the evils which marked the emergence of the modern world, also revels in the wide-roaming nature of freedom itself. Edugyan takes her characters from Barbados to Virginia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, west Africa, the Sahara, and even an aquarium which Washington constructs in London (perhaps Jonah’s mermaid could live there). Throughout Washington Black a tension is brilliantly held: ours is a fallen world which sometimes can still produce such wonders.
Taking place during the same time period as Washington Black, but a few thousand miles north of sweltering Barbados, is Carys Davies’s minimalist novella West. Pennsylvania farmer Cy Bellman reads an account of giant fossilized bones discovered on the Kentucky frontier, and though the recent accounts of Lewis and Clarke returning from the west tell no tale of massive monsters roaming the American plains and mountains, the gentle widower assumes some remnant of the megafauna must still live beyond the horizon, and so compelled by an obsessive sense of wonder he journeys to find them.
“He paced about every half hour, he took the folded paper from his shirt pocket and smoothed it flat on top of the table and read it again: there no illustrations, but in his mind they resembled a ruined church, or a shipwreck of stone—the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud,” Davies writes. Bellman’s heart is set on both his dead wife, and the dinosaurs he imagines foraging in a fantastic American west, but he leaves his daughter behind with a long-suffering sister, the young girl both pining for her father’s affections and struggling to survive her approaching adolescence in a young nation not amenable to any weakness. West alternates between the accounts of young Bess, and Cy and his teenage Indian guide as they fruitlessly search for the creatures. As a British author, Davies has an ear for American weirdness that can sometimes elude domestic novelists, and West functions as a parable of lost innocence in the era of bunkum, of medicine shows and tent revivals. Davies writes with the clarity of a fairy-tale, but West never reduces its visceral characters to the level of mere allegory.
Sharma Shields tells tale of a different loss of American innocence, not the terra incognita of Manifest Destiny and all that was projected onto an already occupied west, but what the United States did with that land and by proxy all of humanity well into the twentieth-century. Set in the same Pacific Northwest country as Red Clocks, Shields’s novel takes us to the most pertinent Year Zero in human history of 1945, when the United States first unleashed the power of matter, when atomic fission possibly set the world towards the inevitable tragedy of nuclear annihilation. The Cassandra is Shields’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth about a woman condemned to prophesize the future, but to never be believed by those in power.
In Shields’s novel, the role of the oracular Sibylline is played by Mildred Groves, a secretary at the Hanford Research Center on Washington’s Columbia River, an instrumental laboratory in the Manhattan Project. Mildred is preternaturally odd, prone to strange trances, visions, and fits, and with a heartbreaking ability to charitably misinterpret her family’s abuse in a benevolent light, as a means of preserving her fractured psyche. One of the most engaging narrators I encountered in my past year of reading, Mildred is simultaneously innocent and terrifying; Shields performs a deft alchemy that makes her protagonist seem both unreliable and omniscient. The Cassandra is at its heart a book about violence in all of its myriad forms—the violence of the natural world, the violence of emotional abuse, sexual violence, and the annihilating nuclear violence to end all violence. In prose that recalls Patmos, Shields intersperses the narratives with Mildred’s terrifying visions, of “dark forests, wild dogs, long-clawed hags, cottages with candy-coated exteriors belying menacing contents: cages, skeletal remains, a hot stove reeking of burnt flesh, cutting boards strewed with bloodied fingers.” With language that owes so much to the vocabulary of nightmare, The Cassandra is commensurate with the bottled violence of potential nuclear holocaust. What makes the novel all the more terrifying is when you realize that Mildred’s visions are of an event that has yet to happen.
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s titular protagonist in Daisy Jones & the Six is a radically different kind of oracle from Mildred Groves, but an oracle all the same. Reid’s novel is a brilliant and ridiculously entertaining account of a fictional rock band in the ’70s with shades of Fleetwood Mac, with the beautiful, troubled, brilliant Daisy Jones a stand-in for Stevie Nicks, who has “got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson.” Written as if it were the transcripts of an MTV Behind the Music-style documentary, Reid’s characters include bandmates, roadies, producers, and family, switching off between perspectives and dramatizing the variability of memory, with effects both poignant and funny. All of the rock and roll stations of the cross are visited—the combustive bandmates, the groupies, the addictions, and the inevitable rehab—but the result is anything but cliched, rather reminding us why we don’t change the dial when something from Rumors comes on the classic rock dial.
The overall effect of Daisy Jones & the Six recalls classic rock journalism, such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Reid’s obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the singer-songwriter tradition of that decade, combined with her love of musicians like Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Carol Kane and so on, creates the uncanny familiarity where you almost remember the music of Daisy Jones as if it were real. In a gambit that almost seems like bragging about her incredible talent, Reid includes as an appendix the lyrics to every song on Daisy Jones & the Six’s seminal album. “When you look in the mirror / Take stock of your soul / And when you hear my voice, remember / You ruined me whole.” Just like the white-winged dove you’d swear you heard that track before. To reduce Daisy Jones & the Six to being a mere roman a clef about Stevie Nicks would be an error, because what Reid provides is nothing less than history from an alternative universe, a collaborative, polyvocal, multitudinous rock epic—it’s an experimental masterpiece.
Ottessa Moshfegh explores self-destruction as well, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation which reads a little as if Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground were written by a terminally depressed, beautiful, wealthy Gen-X orphan living in New York at the turn of the millennium. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator lives in an Upper East Side penthouse, and ostensibly works as an assistant for a gallery owner downtown, but her days are spent endlessly watching the same discount VHS tapes over and over and moldering away in her hermetically sealed apartment. My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist reads like an Aubrey Plaza character scripted by Albert Camus, and part of the novel’s freshness and misanthropic joy comes from encountering a woman who embodies all of the existential ennui of those masculine characters of twentieth-century modernism.
Rather than a French Algerian smoking in a café or a Russian dissident wondering what the meaning of life is, Moshfegh’s narrator is a Columbia graduate with model good looks who is able to be as much of an antisocial anti-hero as Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger. “I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.” Her narrator suffers from an almost terminal case of sleep irregularity, between insomnia and somnolence, culminating in a performance art piece that in the hands of a lesser author could read as parody, but in Moshfegh’s novel becomes a metaphysical exploration. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by giving us a woman who can behave as badly as a man, has its own type of transgressive power. But to reduce it to a Ghostbusters reboot of a J.G. Ballard novel is to miss that My Year of Rest and Relaxation, not in spite of but because of the jaded affect, is a potent novel about depression and grief.
Cofounder of the site N+1 and brother to the LGBTQ activist, political commentator, and Russian dissident Masha Gessen, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country explores the chimerical Russia of the last decade. The novel is categorizable among the same tradition that led to fiction by first-generation Russian immigrants to the United States who arrived right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutants Handbook or Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America. Gessen’s novel is similar to those precursors in that the nation actually under scrutiny in the title is arguably the United States. A Terrible Country focuses on New York comparative literature graduate student Andrei Kaplan, who has absconded to the Moscow of his youth as dissertation funding begins to dry up, ostensibly to assist his shady oligarch-adjacent brother Dima in the care of their grandmother with dementia.
“My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981,” Andrei says, “I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian.” The differences between those two cultures, as with Shteyngart and Litman’s writing, is the tension of A Terrible Country; the novel reading as a sort of fictional companion piece to journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s chilling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Set during the 2008 financial collapse, Gessen’s novel traces the gloaming period between the dawn of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the current midnight of Vladimir Putin. In A Terrible Country Putin’s regime is not yet exactly a “regime,” the authoritarian tendencies of the former KGB officer still tangibly “Western” if you’re drunk and squinting, but one of the things Gessen does so well is dramatize the myopia of the individual before history. “I pictured myself protesting the Putin regime in the morning, playing hockey in the afternoon, and keeping my grandmother company in the evening,” Andrei says, though of course the reality of history is that it rarely keeps to our neat schedules.
No novel from the past few years quite so clearly provides a map of the terrain of national divisions, and what it means to simply try and lives life for yourself and your family in light of those divisions, as much as Lydia Kiesling’s first novel The Golden State. Former editor for The Millions, Kiesling’s novel is an engaging, empathetic, and honest exploration of the stresses of motherhood, professional life, family, and regional identity. Much to the benefit of this beautiful novel, The Golden State relegates current events to the role that they actually play in our lives, as a distant vibrational hum, even when those events can and do have profound personal effects on us. New mother Daphne is a low-level administrator for an Islamic studies program at a school that appears very much like UC-Berkeley, while her Turkish husband has been denied reentry into the United States after harassment by the Department of Homeland Security. While her husband attempts to disentangle his visa situation (while Daphne wonders how hard he is really trying), she absconds with her daughter Honey from San Francisco to her grandparent’s former home of Altavista located deep within the dusty, brown interior of the state. The Golden State explores a California not often revealed to outsiders; it’s not the brie and merlot set of the Bay area, nor the quinoa and avocado bowl folks of L.A., but a different place entirely, accessed through “nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert.”
Altavista bears more similarity to Idaho or Nevada than Palo Alto or Malibu, a place beyond the “top of Donner Pass and some kind of geological divide, [where] suddenly the forest are gone and the land is brown and stretching out for miles and miles.” Daphne’s interactions with the locals, specifically a woman named Cindy who is a leader in a quixotic secession movement not dissimilar to right-wing survivalist militias, provides a perspective on national splits more potent than the typical “bubble” discourse favored by the aforementioned major newspapers. The Golden State is the most accurate portrayal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy published since the election of you-know-who, and all without mentioning you-know-who. Kiesling’s portrayal of that split never pretends it isn’t real, there is no rapprochement or understanding with Cindy, but there is an awareness that none of us are as sheltered as the New York Times editorial page pretends. A denizen of San Francisco can be totally aware of what lay off 400 miles down the road. What’s even more crucial in Kiesling’s novel is the wisdom that politics is always personal, that more than what appears on 24-hour news it’s expressed in the fear of a wife waiting for her husband’s safe-return, or in a mother’s tender love for her daughter.
For reasons not even totally clear to myself, I’d always thought that successful, local restaurants providing accessible food to a large number of people could be material for a great American tragedy. When I lived in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, there was a regional chain of restaurants, only three or four of them, owned by these Greek brothers. The food was basically Applebee’s redux, but I was obsessed with the chain, not least of which because I thought there must be so much drama between the siblings; who got to manage which restaurants, vying for the affection of their immigrant parents, even arguing over the composition of the slick, laminated menus—for so much depends on the jalapeño poppers. Lillian Li basically wrote that novel for me, transposed from the Lehigh Valley to suburban Washington, D.C., with a sports bar replaced with a once high-end Chinese restaurant undergoing increasingly hard times.
Complicated family arrangements are at the heart of Li’s engrossing Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel which peels back the jade-green curtain at the institution which is the mid-century Chinese-American eatery to provide an epic narrated by a chorus. Manager Jimmy Han, prodigal son of the Beijing Duck House, hopes to close the restaurant down in favor of opening an elegant, hipper location on the Potomac waterfront, but he’s set between the machinations of his perfectionist, professional brother Johnny, his calculating mother, and the underworld figure “Uncle” Pang whose investments had saved the restaurant since its founding. Johnny’s restaurant, to his disdain, is a place of “gaudy, overstuffed décor,” defined by a “deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lightning, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers.” Rockville, Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is the sort of restaurant omnipresent at one time, the affordable, quasi-sophisticated repository of Yankified Mandarin cuisine, all chop suey, and egg foo young, moo goo gai pan, and of course the crispy, greasy, delicious duck which gives the establishment its name. Li interrogates questions of ethnic identity and food, class and food, and family drama and food. What elevates Number One Chinese Restaurant to greatness is that Li never forgets the humanity of these characters, from the long-repressed love of the elderly kitchen staff to Johnny’s vices and hubris.
Patrick deWitt knows that family is complicated in French Exit: A Tragedy of Manners, which bears less similarity to Number One Chinese Restaurant than it does a novelization of Charles Addams’s The New Yorker cartoons, or as if a Wes Anderson movie produced by Tim Burton. Author of the under-heralded (though filmed!) post-modern western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt is a master minimalist for whom every comma is cutting, every semicolon a scythe. French Exit initially takes place in a seemingly timeless Upper East Side, all jackets with crests and loafers, inhabited by the wealthy widow Frances Price, a “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone” and her adult son Malcolm, “looking his usual broody and unkempt self,” who become Parisian expats after their wealth evaporates. Joining the Prices is Frances’s cat Small Frank, whom she (correctly) maintains is the reincarnation of her despised husband. Frances would seem to be a role made for Jessica Walter, even as Wikipedia dutifully informs me that Michelle Pfeiffer has been cast in the adaptation being developed by deWitt himself. French Exit is a delicious mint-flavored green-pastel macaron of a novel, with just a hint of sweet arsenic.
A benefit to being a nonfiction essayist reading and reviewing novels is that there is a degree or personal distance that you can affect to avoid pangs of professional jealousy which sometimes accompany reading great writing, and which any honest scribbler would have to cop to. When I read something as tender as The Golden State, as astute as A Terrible Country, as innovative as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or as wondrous as Washington Black, I can console my envious conscience with the mantra that “Well, I’m not a novelist.” With K. Chess’s mind-blowing, psychedelic Famous Men Who Never Lived I can’t quite do that, because her narrative conceit is so brilliant, it’s so good, that I can’t help feeling jealousy at having not conceived of the story first.
Famous Men Who Never Lived gives account of Hel and Vikram, two refugees from a parallel universe who alongside thousands of others are in exile in our own reality (or at least a version which seems nearly similar) after their world was destroyed, living in a New York City that diverged in the earliest years of the twentieth-century. These refugees between universes remembered their “world history… the rumors about forced labor at America Unida’s hidden education camps, about what the Power Brothers in Ceylon had done in the jungles to city-dwelling elites. And she’d remembered the KomSos clearing the shtetls of the Pale from east to west.” As with those dislocated by history in her world, Hel and Vikram are dislocated from the very idea of history itself, where you must “Leave what you own behind.” The result is a novel with not just a clever science fiction conceit, but also one which is a moving meditation on loss and dislocation. Hel comes to believe that the point of divergence involved Ezra Sleight, who died in childhood in our universe but grew to be a popular science fiction author in her and Vikram’s reality, with the later an expert on his The Pyronauts. Chess’s ingenious nesting stories recall Emily St. John Mandel’s similar speculative fiction masterpiece Station Eleven, with Famous Men Who Never Lived giving voice to the dislocations of exile, whether in our world or between our worlds. What Chess accomplishes is nothing less than a demonstration of how literature creates new universes, while expressing that which is consistent for humans regardless of which reality we may be living in.
“I war-gamed out everything. My biggest fear was that somebody tries to play out my book and finds out it won’t work.” At The New York Times, Alexandra Alter writes about the new Minecraft novel by Max Brooks, author of World War Z: “In the process, he may have also created a strange new entertainment category, one that hovers somewhere between fan fiction, role-playing games and literature — a novel set in a game, that can itself be played within the game.” And while we’re on the topic of games, let’s also talk about geekdom and race.
1.With the release of George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead, zombies became the monster of choice for those wishing to blend in a little social commentary with their horror. Ever since then, people have found zombies for the “thinking man” everywhere, from the hit movie 28 Days Later to obscure horror novels like Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead by Kim Paffenroth or Pariah by Bob Fingerman. Even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has a bit of an edge to it, according to its author: “The people in Austen’s books are kind of like zombies. No matter what’s going on around them in the world, they live in this bubble of privilege.”
Of course, after 50 years, the zombie genre has hit the creative doldrums. Instead of covering new thematic territory, zombies simply became more physically frightening – bloodier, gorier, faster. And the stories in which they starred became more mindless, content only to revisit the themes of Romero’s Living Dead series. Okay, people become selfish and shortsighted in a crisis; okay, zombies can stand-in for mindless consumerism, ignorance, or ideological conformity. Is that really all the zombie genre has to offer?
In 2006, Max Brooks turned the zombie story on its ear with a supreme act of genre-bending. Because most zombie stories had to be, well, stories, they necessarily focused on a single person or a small group of survivors. But Brooks wrote World War Z as an oral history, which allowed him to form a kind of pointillist view of the “zombie war” from almost two dozen points of view. Thus we see the war through the eyes of a soldier who fought in every major battle in North America; of the Chinese doctor who discovered Patient Zero; of two unlikely heroes who survived the war in Japan even after the islands had been evacuated. And instead of focusing on how crisis brings out the worst in individuals, though there is plenty of that, Brooks mostly concerns himself with big picture: the failure of governments and societies. In that sense, World War Z sets out to do exactly what oral histories of the end of the world have always done.
2.According to Brooks, Studs Terkel’s 1984 book The Good War “influenced me more than anything… When I sat down to write World War Z, I wanted it to be in the vein of an oral history.” In terms of narrative framing, Brooks follows Terkel almost exactly; The Good War is basically a series of interviews with people who fought in, or lived through, World War II.
The Good War is as much biting social criticism as a mere compilation of conversations. On the very first page of the book, Terkel lobs a rhetorical grenade right at the reader: “the disrememberance of World War II,” he writes, “is as disturbingly profound as the forgettery of the Great Depression.” It’s an odd sentiment to read, especially nowadays. After all, we live in a post-Saving Private Ryan, post-Band of Brothers world, where bookstores have separate World War II sections and the History Channel has at least two hours of World War II programming a day. Surely no one could “disremember” World War II.
About 100 pages and a dozen interviews into the book, however, the reader begins to see what Terkel means. For most, World War II was the adventure of their lives and an “epochal victory” over evil. But many also remember their feelings of ambivalence, helplessness, and confusion in the face of a world-spanning conflict. More than one person remarks that everything after the war “is anticlimactic;” others, like the Italian immigrant who said that the war “obliterated our culture and made us Americans,” are downright regretful.
Although The Good War is a strongly antiwar book, Terkel shrewdly lets his interviewees make the point for him. There are, of course, the stereotypical antiwar voices: the disillusioned veteran, the vaguely contemptuous academic, the shallow celebrity. But Terkel manages to find people whose insistence that “people in America do not know what war is” seems much less rote. An orderly in a burn ward who describes how she “had to keep the skin wet with these moist saline packs. We would wind yards and yards of this wet pack around people. That’s what war is.” An admiral who insists that “the twisted memory of [World War II] encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.” An otherwise happy veteran who closes the book by saying, “I hope I can die of old age, before the world starts the war.” And scariest of all, the congressman, Hamilton Fish, who founded the precursor to the House Un-American Activities Commission and who insisted that the United States would never use the bomb solely because “we are a God-fearing country.”
The Good War is a record of profound change, as “a country psychically as well as geographically isolated had become, with the suddenness of a blitzkreig, engaged with distant troubles. And close-at-hand triumphs.” But it also shows the variety of opinions that people can hold about something that seems, at first glance, a simple struggle between good and evil. It is a necessary counterpoint to cloying, chest-thumping, action-packed narratives of war, as Terkel intended it to be. And, by coming out with a strong antiwar message during one of the tensest periods of the Cold War — just after Soviet fighters shot down Korean Air Flight 007 and both sides deployed new nuclear missiles throughout Europe — it showed that something as simple as a collection of interviews could say as much about its present day as it did about the past.
3.Besides The Good War, 1984 saw the publication of Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday, a documentary-style oral history that takes place five years after a 36-minute nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
(First things first: yes, this is the same Whitley Strieber who wrote the alien abduction book Communion and the environmental sci-fi novel The Coming Global Superstorm, which inspired the movie The Day After Tomorrow. But the Whitley Strieber of Warday still has a few years to go before all of this.)
Warday matches World War Z even more closely in terms of tone, themes, and narrative techniques. Strieber and Kunetka imagine their way into a United States devastated by a “limited” nuclear exchange — one that still managed to vaporize San Antonio and Washington, D.C., and render New York, New Jersey, and most of the Midwest uninhabitable. The bombs themselves are horrific enough: at one point, a superheated tidal wave from an offshore nuclear blast inundates the New York subway, and the authors can hear the screams of the drowning cut off by the “nasty bellow of water.” But even worse is the aftermath.
As they travel around the country, Strieber and Kunetka document the dozens of ways in which a nation that once prided itself on individual liberties and a stubborn, can-do attitude has turned into a collection of petty fiefdoms whose laws “are an affront to the very memory of the Bill of Rights.” The government requires doctors to turn away patients who have been exposed to enough radiation to significantly shorten their life expectancy. The relatively untouched parts of the country now refuse to accept “illegals” from others — a trainload of orphans from Philadelphia are turned back at the Georgia border, for example, and when the authors smuggle themselves into California, they are chased out at gunpoint by immigration police. And with perfect journalistic aim, the authors document the death of American self-confidence in a series of fictionalized polls that ask questions like “Do you think that the destiny of this country is presently in the hands of other nations?” and “Do you believe that the federal government should abandon the War Zones permanently?”
As Strieber told People magazine in 1984, “We did not want to write a book about explosions. We wanted to take people into life beyond The Day After — to wake them up in the New World of the years after.” And his and Kunetka’s decision to make Warday a cautionary tale about nuclear war without focusing on the warfare itself makes it a successful cri de coeur. “Modern nuclear war,” they write, “means life being replaced by black, empty space” — both physically and spiritually. Nuclear weapons might destroy our homes and lives, they suggest, but only we can decide to abandon our principles in the face of fear, ignorance, and a permanent state of pessimism.
4.Chances are, however, that you’ve never heard of Warday. Although the book spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list and earned Strieber and Kunetka the equivalent of a million-dollar advance today, it has been out of print since 1985. It isn’t that the book lacked timeliness; 1984 meant plenty of post-apocalyptic pop culture, including Mad Max the television shows The Day After in the United States and Threads in the UK. Yet after that brief burst of success, people put down Warday and never really picked it back up.
Maybe the book bit a little too hard. It’s shocking, for example, to hear a Canadian traveler joke about the “Uncle Sam Jump” (the postwar American equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge), or to hear about American nannies considered to be a status symbol by wealthy foreign businessmen — in other words, to see the United States treated like a developing country. More importantly, Warday portrays the American Republic — “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness,” according to George Washington — as something extremely fragile, and not easily restored once lost. And all this at the height of the Cold War, when Ronald Reagan told Americans that no rational human being would prefer authoritarianism to democracy.
Warday is also relentlessly grim. The fact that World War Z is about zombies means that it flirts with silliness and the adolescent flair for ultra-violence against things that aren’t quite human beings — see, for example, the helicopter pilot who uses his rotor blades as a giant zombie buzzsaw during the Battle of Yonkers. And both The Good War and World War Z end with American victories, which at least balances all of the loose ends, postwar traumas, and moral gray areas in both books. In the end, a happy ending and plenty of flag-waving patriotism makes the bitter pill of social commentary go down much easier. With Warday, there are no such spoonfuls of sugar. We’re left knowing only that the authors have succeeded in their journey, and arrive home simply to endure the “epidemic of shortened lives.” Strieber and Kunetka are only the historical equivalent of a bucket brigade, passing on knowledge of their post-apocalyptic world while knowing that in the end it helps no one.
Still, if Warday sails too close to the Scylla of moralizing heavy-handedness, at least it avoids the Charybdis of slapdash social commentary that permeates World War Z. Granted, a zombie apocalypse can be a metaphor for many things, but Brooks never quite seems to know exactly what his stands for. Right off the bat, he tacks leftward, lamenting the fact that lax FDA regulation contributed to the panic and sneering along with the reader at the official who asks, “Can you ever ‘solve’ disease, unemployment, war, or any other societal herpes?” (Just in case anyone doubts Brooks’s political sympathies, the stand-in for the Bush administration ends the book literally shoveling shit). But then Brooks finds a savior in authority, tradition, and centralized planning: Israel becomes a police state and survives relatively unscathed, the Queen inspires a nation by refusing to leave Windsor Palace, Nelson Mandela (who goes unnamed) saves South Africa from being overrun, and, most of all, a charismatic American president announces his decision to take back the world aboard an aircraft carrier.
So are we supposed to hate government, or embrace it as our last, best hope? Are individuals and individual liberties important, or do we need Great Men (and Women) — aided, of course, by a competent bureaucracy — to compel us toward safety and salvation? What is its message about violence, when it portrays the mass “killing” of zombies in painstaking, almost loving detail? And does the fact that World War Z is a monster story mean that we cannot take it seriously at all, even though it clearly invites us to do so?
Obviously, the World War Z references a variety of Bush-era woes. And Brooks’s reviewers draw attention to World War Z’s “parallels” and “metaphors” and “expressly political and socioeconomic material,” but they never identify what the book is supposed to mean. What purpose, except for the thrill of recognition, do all of these modern-day references accomplish? They don’t add up to an overarching moral point, except to get us even angrier about “incompetence in high places and lack of preparedness” — which, incidentally, is exactly what George Romero tried to tell us in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is not to say that World War Z is a shallow book by any means. It has scary moments and exhilarating ones, violence and poignancy, and quite a few colorful personalities (though Brooks resorts to stereotypes a bit too often when it comes to international characters). Still, it’s a bit disingenuous to claim, as the book’s dust jacket does, that Brooks does for zombies what Studs Terkel did for World War II. Yes, his choice of narrative frame refreshes a genre that had already entered its baroque phase. But World War Z never quite manages the same level of moral pique as The Good War and Warday; it is so constrained by its undead subject matter that it can only gesture at modern-day relevance before falling back on the same shopworn themes. Although it has more brains than the average zombie story, it still doesn’t have much of a heart.
Image credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and The Passage is everywhere. As I waited for my flight at LaGuardia Airport a month ago, headed north for a book tour, Justin Cronin talked about his book on Good Morning America on a screen above my head. The Passage waits for me, in stacks, at all the bookstores that I visit. Cronin’s readings draw enviably enormous crowds. The sheer scale of the marketing campaign inspires shock and awe: there is a Passage iPhone application, of all things, and not one but two wildly-expensive-looking websites.
All of this delights me — I haven’t read the book yet, but a majority of booksellers of my acquaintance seem to have loved it, and I like seeing good books and their authors celebrated. The Passage, in my understanding, concerns a post-apocalyptic world. A virus has turned most of the population into vampires; the few human survivors are hunted in a dark and hopeless landscape. In other words, this sounds like exactly the kind of thing I’ll enjoy reading.
I’ve long had an unhealthy interest in apocalypse. I seem not to be alone in this morbid fascination; every year new wastelands arise on screen and in fiction, bleak and ruined worlds with their own sets of rules, their own catastrophes and their own unique monsters. Perhaps there’s something about experiencing the end of everything that helps us confront our own mortality. Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with the unsettling truth that the end, all conspiracy theories and misinterpreted Mayan calendars aside, will eventually be nigh: even if we manage to escape nuclear annihilation or a pandemic, we orbit a star and stars have lifespans.
And on that bright note I present, for your consideration and summer reading enjoyment, a brief selection of my favorite fictional apocalypses.
1. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
This is one of my favorite books, and it concerns a disaster like none other in literature. “I am in hell,” the narrator of The Gone-Away World tells us. “I am in hell, and there are mimes.” The book is set in a world that has come apart at the seams. One or two of the best minds in science have devised a Go-Away bomb, the effects of which are difficult to describe in under two or three pages; the short version is that it makes things Go Away, in a capitalized, future-of-modern-warfare, vanished-from-the-face-of-the-earth-without-a-trace sense. But the fallout from the Go-Away bombs creates a vacuum in which the fears and dreams and nightmares of humans and animals are reified and come to life. This is a swashbuckling adventure story set in a dangerous and beautiful world, a surrealist post-war landscape where nightmares walk the earth. There are ninjas. Also, mimes.
2. Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steve Amsterdam
The nature of the apocalypse is vague. The first story — this is a collection of interlinked short stories, reviewed elsewhere on The Millions — concerns a young boy on the night of Y2K, and the stories that comprise the rest of the collection afford us glimpses of his life in the changed world that follows. Is this an alternate reality wherein the projected disasters of Y2K came to pass? Perhaps. Cause and effect remain elusive, but the grid has gone down. Later there are plagues and torrential rainstorms, pervasive cancers and volcanoes, draconian bureaucracies and flocks of refugees. Everything, it seems, has gone wrong all at once.
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I loved The Road. I also loved Jacob Lambert’s hilarious send-up of it, but I loved The Road more. It seemed fashionable a few months ago to not love The Road, but what the hell, I thought it was good. A man and his child move through a world decimated ten years earlier by an unspecified catastrophe. It’s the bleakest apocalypse I’ve come across in literature. Most apocalypse narratives, I’ve noticed, make it easy to imagine surviving the disaster; you imagine you’d probably be among the luckier refugees in Things We Didn’t See Coming, among the survivors of the Go-Away War; but McCarthy presents a world that seems not just unsurvivable, but like a place you might not actually want to survive.
4. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
I came across this book nearly a decade ago, and was surprised to realize just now that I no longer own a copy. It’s a strange and entrancing story, the only novel that Miller published in his lifetime. The book begins in the dark ages of the 26th century, six hundred years after a global nuclear war has destroyed civilization. Illiteracy is nearly universal, but a small order of monks in Utah is dedicated to the preservation of half-understood books hoarded by their founder in the 20th century. The novel spans over a thousand years and reads as a parable of human folly: in 3174 a new Renaissance is underway, and electricity has been re-discovered; in 3781 there are once again nuclear weapons, and rumors of war.
5. World War Z by Max Brooks
I’m generally not a fan of zombie fiction, but I picked this up in McNally Jackson in New York one day when I had some time to kill before a downtown appointment. Nearly a hundred pages later I was still reading on a bookstore chair. World War Z is presented as an oral history of the zombie war. An unnamed interviewer travels the world, interviewing survivors of the apocalypse: a pilot who went down over a heavily infested area of the United States while transporting supplies between safe zones, a member of a Chinese submarine crew who watched the end of the world through a periscope, a warrior monk from the evacuated islands of Japan. It’s scarily captivating.