Recent novels published before the current outbreak are enjoying new popularity, even if they deal with very nasty plagues that kill practically everyone on the planet. That’s the background for Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven and for Lin Ma’s 2018 novel Severance.
Lawrence Wright, a New Yorker journalist, wrote his new book, The End of October, before COVID-19 was a thing and researched his subject thoroughly, consulting epidemiologists, immunologists, microbiologists, security experts, vaccine experts, and public-health officials. Although his book is a thriller, he also intended it as a warning of what might happen if a new killer virus did surface.
‘‘In some ways, I have to admit, I’m kind of proud that I imagined things that, in real life, seem to be coming into existence,’’ he told his colleague David Remnick in a New Yorker interview recorded a few weeks ago. ‘‘On the other hand, I feel embarrassed to have written this and have it come out.’’
Real life has similarly overtaken Australian writer Meg Mundell’s novel The Trespassers, set aboard a ship of migrants en route from Britain to Australia to escape a deadly plague. It was inspired by the true story of a quarantine ship reaching Melbourne in 1852, but now bears an eerie resemblance to the true stories of cruise ships moored in our ports and full of sick travellers and crew.
One writer wondering about this sudden interest in plague fiction is Siri Hustvedt. ‘‘Almost every novel or story that somehow relates to disease epidemics has been popping up on ‘what to read during the virus’ lists,’’ she writes. ‘‘I suspect that implicit in these literary resurrections is an understanding that ‘the news’ and ‘facts’ are impersonal … When it is good, literature moves the personal into other territory altogether and in the process becomes collective.
‘‘It may be that during moments when death is close and perhaps imminent, at least some readers crave an experience that is beyond what they expect, beyond the endlessly repeated platitudes on radio and TV and the Internet.’’ So she has been reading Boccaccio’s Decameron and Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, set during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic: ‘‘Its delirium passages are extraordinary.’’
Plague in fiction also works as a complex and evocative metaphor. One new Australian novel I want to read is The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay. Here, a new flu pandemic means its victims can understand the language of animals. But this is no jolly Dr Dolittle adventure: the myriad animal voices are unstoppable and begin to drive people mad.
Jane Sullivan’s latest book, Storytime, is published by Ventura Press at $26.99.