Is there still a place for pandemic-lit?

‘She was watching the news, her hands clasped at her throat.

“It’s unprecedented,” Elizabeth said. “In all of human history…,” she trailed off, shaking her head.’

There is more than one example of prescience in Emily St. John Mandel’s gripping story of post-pandemic survival, Station Eleven (Picador, 2014), but this one – this single word, uttered by a character as she watches the world she knew fall apart – was, for me, the starkest. We’ve all become acquainted with this word in some way or another over the last ten months, whether we’ve spoken it ourselves or read it on the screens of our phones or heard it declared from the mouths of newscasters. It was at this point I started to wonder why on earth I was reading a pandemic novel in 2020, during which many of the prophecies foretold by legions of authors from Albert Camus to Margaret Atwood to Stephen King have pretty much come true. Shouldn’t this be an occasion to read something light-hearted; something funny; something which will take my mind away from the endless news reports and collective feeling of anxiety and exhaustion caused by the spread of Covid-19?

Nope. I’m just a glutton for (more) punishment, apparently. Page-turning, supremely well-written and tightly-plotted punishment. The novel follows the stories of a handful of interconnected characters as they grapple with a New Virus in Town – the deadly ‘Georgia Flu’ – as it sweeps the planet, wiping out most of humanity. At the centre of it all is Arthur Leander, an egotistical actor whose on-stage death during a performance of King Lear (a breathtaking opening scene) is the jumping-off point for the story.

Make no mistake; the Georgia Flu is way, way worse than the Coronavirus. What’s interesting, however, is that the characters’ reactions to the pandemic as it closes in on cities and eviscerates hospitals is strikingly similar to the behaviours we saw back in March-April time (a character called Jeevan, for example, immediately clears the shelves in the nearest supermarket after learning about the virus). We’re human, after all – when we are under threat we go into survival mode. And the reason stories like this are so gripping – the reason authors are drawn to telling them – is because they allow us to live out our fight-flight-freeze survival instincts vicariously, in the safety and comfort of our homes, as we sit down to read.

But what about when there is an actual pandemic happening outside our windows? Will we still seek out these stories when they are stripped of their vicariousness, when the distance between us and the plight of their characters is narrowed? At the beginning of this year, as awareness of the impending Coronavirus pandemic was on the rise, it was reported that movies such as 2011’s Contagion were making it into the top-ten lists of iTunes rentals, as well as novels about epidemics popping up on reading lists across the internet. But was this sudden surge in interest a result of pure novelty – the early giddiness that came before the lockdowns and redundancies and loss of so many lives? Or was it a way to somehow prepare ourselves, a way for our survival-obsessed brains to cope with the loss of control that was edging ever-closer?

Now that the vaccines are on their way and everyone keeps going on about how ‘life is going to be back to normal by spring’ (whatever that means), it’s hard to know whether audiences will continue to seek out stories about pandemics or if we all need to take a break from the genre. It’s hard to picture authors chomping at the bit to write the Next Great Virus Novel when so many artists, writers, filmmakers have lost their livelihoods to Covid-19, or barely survived the havoc it has wreaked on the arts industry. Only one certainty remains clear: we are human. We are wired to survive. Stories like Station Eleven will always resonate; but perhaps it’s time to find a new way to tell them.

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