Someday soon, we are going to be turning the pages of the newspaper and will spot a review for a book about the pandemic spring of 2020. Already, the nonfiction accounts are on their way, with their chronicles of the virus’ spread across the globe and the missed opportunities to contain it. As The New York Times reported, Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary arrived in May, followed by Debora MacKenzie’s Covid-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened in June. The novels will come next.
I say this because, speaking as a novelist, we depend upon journalists and historians to help us understand what really happened. Inside the fictional structures I build are the framing, wiring, and plumbing that makes a house a home, and a lot of what resides behind the fictional wallpaper and Sheetrock is what actually happened. Or could happen.
In some ways, 9/11 is instructive. It was 2005 when the major 9/11 novels began to arrive in earnest. In that year we read Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. In 2006, Claire Messud gave us The Emperor’s Children, and Julia Glass published The Whole World Over. In 2007, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist arrived, as did Don DeLillo’s Falling Man.
Obviously, there are others, and there were allusions to the cataclysm in novels as early as 2002 and 2003. But, generally, it took novelists a little more time to shape the nightmare into a story. After all, how do you make something up when the truth is so unspeakable? So wrenching?
When the first of the World Trade Center towers pancaked into the earth on Sept. 11, 2001, I was on the tarmac at Denver International Airport, seated in a plane that was about to fly to San Francisco. I was on a book tour. The jet never left the ground, the airport was evacuated, and I returned to the same hotel where I had spent the night before.
For the next week or so, I’d go the hotel gym, eat at the hotel bar, and walk the Denver streets aimlessly.
I avoided the television because it was an endless loop of a plane piercing one of the World Trade towers or scenes of despair at Ground Zero. (My wife’s first job out of college had been as a bond trader on the 104th floor of 2 World Trade. I knew that building and those elevators well.)
The first thing I did when I was home was change the ending of my forthcoming novel. Instead of disappointment and grief, I ended it with uplift and hope. The second thing I did was scrap the novel I was writing and begin something new. I couldn’t bear to be back in that hotel room in Denver, and so I began a different story. It wasn’t about 9/11; this was only a week and a half after the cataclysm. None of us can really make sense of history as history is occurring.
But 9/11 would figure in the story later on, and it was the first time I had set part of a book in Manhattan since my first novel in 1988.
Among the lengthy library shelf of 9/11 novels I’ve read, the one I think about most is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland from 2008, which chronicles (among other things) the demise of a marriage in the aftermath of the attack. But it’s also a love letter to New York City that captures the magic and strangeness of the metropolis: “Sometimes to walk in shaded parts of Manhattan is to be inserted into a Magritte: the street is night while the sky is day.”
The planet is starting to open up, though it’s unclear whether we will ever return to the world we knew in February. Even when we have a vaccine, the things we took for granted — that Italian restaurant with the exquisite vodka sauce — may be gone. So might our favorite bookstore and readings where we cram 100 chairs into a shop meant to hold 50 people.
If 9/11 is a literary precedent, it could be years before we will see our first rush of novels about the coronavirus pandemic. Some will no doubt take place in the innermost ring of Dante’s Inferno that has been the nation’s emergency rooms, and some will be about the chaos of homeschooling twin 8-year-olds while your toddler crashes your corporate Zoom meeting. Some will be about claustrophobia and the idea that Hell really is other people.
Or jigsaw puzzles.
But some will be about the spectacular joy of being 50-something parents and having your 20-something daughter and her boyfriend quarantined at home with you for months, cooking together, and walking the woods of Vermont. My God, that has been a blessing for my wife and me.
When we began to shelter in place, the social networks were awash with the idea that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague quarantine. I’m not sure whether the point was to galvanize us or make us all just give up. The evidence I’ve read online suggests it’s possible the bard did indeed pen the great tragedy while in lockdown.
But King Lear is not about the plague. And that matters.
Certainly, my next novel is not about the coronavirus — and neither is the book after that. I’ve used this pandemic period to finish a novel set in 1662 and to work on one set in 1964.
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about something the Armenian novelist, journalist, and professor Zabel Yesayan wrote a century ago about the tides of history: “We are very aware that we are in the middle of a war. But we are still continuing our calm and monotonous lives.”
The world has changed at least as drastically as it did after 9/11. We are brittle; we are confused; we are grieving.
I’m sure I have peers who are imagining their CoViD-19 novels right now, exploring the randomness of who lives and who dies, the heroism of some and the heinousness of others.
Meanwhile, those of us not on the front lines, those of us continuing our calm and monotonous lives, walk our dogs and bake bread and post our pictures on Instagram.
And, yes, some of us write. Just not about this. Not yet.