My friend wants to write a timely joke. She’s got a punch line: “one is a novel virus; the other is a virus novel” (ha ha), but she's stuck on the set-up. “What’s the difference between COVID-19 and [title of iconic book about a pandemic]?”
She crowd-sources—which is to say, she asks her partner, my partner, and me one night in the living room, after we’ve finished our nightly disinfectant-swabbing of the doorknobs.
Our collective brainstorming (and, okay, a quick Google search), yields some notable nonfiction, including The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus, and Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, a chronicle of how governmental apathy and political infighting exacerbated the spread of AIDS. (Worth a reread in light of our own president’s foot-dragging on coronavirus.)
But what about fiction? Yes, there’s Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron—you might have missed it unless your reading habits tilt toward Great Books of the 1350s—which draws analogies between contracting the Black Plague (“plaga,” in Italian, means “violent blow”) and falling in love.
Stephen King’s The Stand, originally published in 1978 and later made into a TV miniseries, describes an epic struggle between good and evil after a deadly virus vanquishes most of the world’s population.
And of course there’s The Plague, Albert Camus’s 1947 novel that uses disease as an allegory for Nazi occupation, resistance, and the human capacity for evil. Adult fiction sales fell this spring as bookstores shuttered and Amazon prioritized shipments of medical supplies over books. But in the United States and Europe, purchases of The Plague spiked.
What, I wondered, were readers seeking in that 75-year-old story? Is there something that imaginative writing—novels and poems and plays—can offer in the throes or the aftermath of pandemic, besides the clever fulfillment of our household joke?
La Bohème to Hamilton
I think about La Bohème, the 19th-century opera that inspired Jonathan Larson’s 1996 rock musical, Rent. In the former, the plague is tuberculosis; in the latter, it’s AIDS. There’s a scene in Rent when multiple characters’ pagers bleat at once, reminding them—in the midst of falling in love, making art, and squatting in East Village tenements—to take their AZT. It’s a grim, tender, wordless moment that’s stayed with me for years.
Or take the lyrics of Hamilton’s opening song, a time-capsule of the hero’s tragic childhood: “Two years later, see Alex and his mother bed ridden/Half dead sittin’ in their own sick, the scent thick/And Alex got better but his mother went quick.” Those lines capture the sickroom’s indignity, the terse meter of disease, better than any nonfiction account of the unspecified illness that spared the play’s protagonist.
When the answers aren’t in the lab
In her 2019 novel, The Dreamers, writer Karen Thompson Walker imagines a highly contagious sleeping sickness that seizes a California college town. She writes of a bride in the last wedding before the military seals the area: “Whoever shares her lipstick that day…whoever touches her hand to admire the ring, whoever catches the bouquet at the end of the night—all of them, every one, is exposed. This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.” I got chills, reading that; yes, I thought, Walker’s words name precisely the paradox of shunning hugs in order to save lives.
Every day, journalists work ceaselessly to disseminate news about COVID-19: numbers of cases, rates of increase, viability of the virus on cardboard, on plastic, in a handshake, in the air. The latest twist of the Dow Jones. The latest spike in deaths.
But what about questions that can’t be answered in a lab or an actuary’s office? What will this disease mean for our humanity? How does it hold a mirror to our best and meanest impulses: courage and selflessness, xenophobia and greed? What art will emerge from this unmooring time, to help us understand how the virus changed us, what we salvaged and what we lost?
What we need more than ever
In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, science writer Jonathan Gottschall suggests that what distinguishes human beings from other species isn’t our bipedalism or our deft, opposable thumbs; it’s our capacity and hunger for stories.
When we read fiction, Gottschall notes—tales of longing, betrayal, or grief—our neurons fire as if we were having that experience ourselves. We slip into someone else’s skin; we glimpse the world through a lens unlike our own. Stories can generate empathy and catalyze action; during this plague, which is shining a devastating light on America’s inequities, we need stories more than ever.
In real life, the story moves inexorably forward. But novels and plays can toy with time, showing us echoes, prophecies, and the ways this crisis is like and unlike all the prior waves of human suffering and survival. And art—once it is safe to gather again—can help draw us out of this atomized, quarantined time.
A novel virus, indeed. When it’s over, when we’re left to count the dead and place an N95 mask in the Smithsonian, we’ll need that virus novel. We’ll need more than one. I hope that creators—of plays and poems and fiction—are taking copious notes. I hope we live to hear their stories.