I’ve been trying to think of what books this corona moment reminds me of. I don’t know why — uh, I guess I instinctively try to relate most things that happen in my real life to my reading life? What’s unsettling though is that — and this is something I’ve seen others saying already — this moment doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve ever read. I started reading David K. Randall’s Black Death at the Golden Gate — a book about how a bubonic plague epidemic threatened to sweep through America in 1900 — a few months ago, but I didn’t get very far into it, and then I put my copy in a holiday gift box for my mom in Ohio. She read it last week while she was sick in bed with pneumonia. I don’t know what kind of pneumonia. (She didn’t get tested for flu; too expensive.) I don’t know if it was corona. I don’t even know how to know. There are, as you have heard, no tests.
And that’s what makes this coronavirus moment different from the little bit of Black Death at the Golden Gate that I read, and from the portions my mom described over the phone while she coughed and coughed and coughed. In that book, some American government officials and scientists heroically stop the plague from spreading. Which means the story being told in that book is more like the one in Singapore or South Korea today: the triumph of science.
So what’s the story here? What does the failure of science feel like? I listened to the latest TrueAnon podcast while I made dinner last night, and, as I recall, Liz Franczak described a sort of sensation she’s been having (out there in San Francisco) that there are visible particles of fear floating in the air. My boyfriend has reported something similar every time he’s come home from work for the past three days, after his 45 minute trek across Brooklyn — there’s something wrong out there, it looks weird. There’s something wrong with the air. (He works retail. There has been something wrong with his air.)
I have not been outside in over a week. I don’t know what it is he’s describing. (But whatever it is, there is a very good chance he has brought it in here with him. In his air.)
I thought of and dismissed a few other books that this moment might be like. For awhile — a few days ago? — coronavirus was a looming, impending crisis that I knew would lead to ruin and death, but which many people around me seemed oblivious to. That brought to mind books written in Germany in the 1930s, like Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? or Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin — books in which many people seem oblivious of society’s imminent doom, even the authors themselves, no matter how canny they try to be. I also thought of Anna Kavan’s Ice — a book I’d previously associated with climate change — in which a natural or perhaps supernatural force, a malignant and almost sentient ice, is engulfing the world, and no one is able to stop it.
But the thing is, someone could have stopped coronavirus. A lot of someones, up and down the various chains of command and control. They just … didn’t. And no one is oblivious to it anymore. We all know about it now. We’re all just sitting around, waiting to find out if we have it.
Honestly, the book I’ve been dwelling on the most these days is Mario Bellatin’s The Beauty Salon. It is a book about AIDS. It is a slight and brutal novella about a beauty salon in which gay men are dying of AIDS because hospitals will not take them in. It is a very grim book. I think it comes to mind so much mostly because I am cowardly, and I fear the overcrowded sick room: I fear being one among many stranded in beds lining hospital hallways or neglected in quickly converted conference halls or gymnasiums. I am childishly afraid of dying in the Javits Center.
But perhaps there is also a thread of connection here beyond my overwhelming cowardice. Covid-19 could very well be one of the few emergent diseases of the 20th or 21st centuries to become endemic, like HIV. People in cities across the country are sheltering in place, waiting to see if they are infected, because our country, unique among countries, does not have the tests to ease our minds. Failures of science like this are more frightening than just the diseases they fail to cure. Like with the malicious mishandling of the HIV epidemic, we know it is people, not gods, who have caused this thing. We look out our windows and we can see there’s something wrong in the air, something wrong in the world, besides the virus.
1. “Lawrence Wright’s New Pandemic Novel Wasn’t Supposed To Be Prophetic” by Lawrence Wright, The New York Times
This is the second time Lawrence Wright has done this.
2. “I’m Not Feeling Good at All” by Jess Bergman, The Baffler
Jess Bergman notices an emergent new genre and criticizes its implications. “With this literature of relentless detachment, we seem to have arrived at the inverse of what James Wood famously called ‘hysterical realism’ … Rather than an excess of intimacy, there is a lack; rather than overly ornamental character sketches, there are half-finished ones. Personality languishes, and desire has been almost completely erased…”
3. “Escaping Blackness” by Darryl Pinckney, The New York Review of Books
In a review of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ latest memoir, Darryl Pinckney surveys the history and literature of resisting and ‘transcending’ race. “Even when you’re done with being black and blackness, it seems that you cannot cease explaining why.”
4. “I called out American Dirt’s racism. I won’t be silenced.” by Myriam Gurba, Vox
Less than a month after Myriam Gurba wrote the essay that triggered a wave of well-deserved backlash against American Dirt, she was put on administrative leave at the high school where she teaches.
5. “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” by Mary South, The White Review
Mary South’s short story collection You Will Never Be Forgotten published this past week. One story from the collection, excerpted in The White Review earlier this year, is told in the style of a brain surgeon’s FAQ for patients.
Sign up to have this week’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.
6. “Heroic Work in a Very Important Field” by David Gelber, The Literary Review
A book review of a book about book reviews. “Uncertain why you are reading this? Good, because I’m not any more certain why I’m writing it.”
7. “How Shakespeare Shaped America’s Culture Wars” Sarah Churchwell, The New Statesman
A review of Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro’s account of the uses and abuses of Shakespeare in American political history.
8. “‘Minor Feelings’ and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
Jia Tolentino on Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. “Hong is writing in agonized pursuit of a liberation that doesn’t look white—a new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness—and the result feels like what she was waiting for.”
9. “What Happened to Jordan Peterson?” by Lindsay Beyerstein, The New Republic
The self-important self-help guru seems to have suffered a severe health episode and his daughter has made some very peculiar statements about what happened.
10. “Pigs in Shit” by Hunter Braithwaite, Guernica
Hunter Braithwaite reviews Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia, a disturbing multi-generational pig-farming novel. “Animalia will come as no surprise. It does not speculate. It doesn’t offer warnings. Which is fine, because if climate change has taught us anything, it’s that warning signs don’t mean shit.”
11. “Woody Allen’s Book Could Signal a New Era in the Publishing Industry” by Maris Kreizman, The Outline
Hachette employees staged a walk-out to protest the house publishing Woody Allen’s memoir. Surprisingly, it worked.
12. “What’s So Funny About the End of the World?” by Rumaan Alam, The New Republic
Rumaan Alam writes about Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8, another recent novel that revels in its disgust for industrial farming (this time chickens, not pigs) and views its violent practitioners as a doomed species. As Alam notes, “We might be sad about the end of humanity, but the chickens are probably relieved.”
Happy reading! Stay inside if you can!