Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Pandemic Novels, Reviewed | The New Yorker

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In the early, self-improvement phase of the pandemic, people would sometimes comment on the opportunities that lockdown presented for art and artists. They’d observe that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during plague times, or that Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer snatched inspiration from the AIDS crisis. It was the slenderest of silver linings, jumbled up with terror and frustration—the idea that COVID might, if nothing else, produce enduring fiction.

Were the “Lear” people right? Four years after the virus began its world-wide demolition tour, the efforts of contemporary scribes of pestilence have borne fruit. A heterogeneous body of literature now attempts to catch the import of the period from roughly March, 2020, to the end of 2021. Authors have written erudite tragicomedies (“Our Country Friends,” by Gary Shteyngart), gentle ghost stories (“The Sentence,” by Louise Erdrich), and shape-shifting compendiums of feeling and memory (“The Vulnerables,” by Sigrid Nunez). The books are intimate and domestic (“Day,” by Michael Cunningham), poetic and psychoanalytic (“August Blue,” by Deborah Levy), stricken and timid (“The Limits,” by Nell Freudenberger), stylized and swaggering (“Blue Ruin,” by Hari Kunzru).

But, despite this polyphony of approaches, a single note seems to sound throughout—a tone of pummelling topicality, all sweaty masks and bottles of disinfectant, reverent about suffering and critical of the comfortable. From a distance, characters behold a world “on fire,” with “its systems collapsing” (Nunez).The rich live “in big houses, on high floors,” while, for everyone else, “history did not stop . . . but came howling on” (Kunzru). We meet President “orangey” (Erdrich) and President “ABOMINATION” (Freudenberger); we hear about how Democrats “weren’t going to beat the red hats by sounding like grad students at a bar” (Freudenberger again). In the stores are “devastated shelves, a couple of fights breaking out over paper towels” (Erdrich). Some lines run together like “the sirens that have become so familiar and will always haunt the memories of those who were at the pandemic’s epicenter” (Nunez). In Levy’s book, “a fleet of seven ambulances with sirens blaring raced by.” In Freudenberger’s, “ambulances screamed by, one after the other.”

Often, this ripped-from-the-headlines note rings alongside others, in books that are agile as novels, with vivid characters and plots, but more leaden as documents of a particular moment. The stretches of writing most concerned with the pandemic can feel unreal, or can seem to regurgitate the past rather than illuminate it, with phrases buckling under the freshly smarting facts that they are asked to grapple with. Consider a handful of glancing references to George Floyd’s murder. In “The Sentence,” characters watch “the video of a police officer with his knee on the neck of a Black man who cried out and cried out for his mother and then went quiet.” In “Our Country Friends,” characters stare at the video of “the white policeman . . . draining the air from his Black victim’s lungs with his knee.” I was returned to the moment, in “Leaving the Atocha Station,” when Ben Lerner’s narrator worries that he is “incapable of having a profound experience of art.” The closest he’s come, he says, is “the experience of distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

What accounts for this gulf, this profound anti-profundity? The realities of the pandemic—nearly fifteen million deaths worldwide; spiking rates of domestic violence, drug abuse, and job loss; plummeting mental health—amounted to a seismic, totalizing emergency. But for many people the day-to-day experience was uneventful: walk in endless circles around the block, retreat from strangers, update loved ones via glitchy, lonely FaceTimes from bed. Some of the numbness of the time, flowing from either boredom or despair, has dripped onto the page, and may explain why these novels at times transcribe to the point of avoidance, obscuring the meanings of things with careful accounts of what they looked or sounded like.

But this body of work also radiates a desire to be useful, somehow, and a sense that perhaps fiction can give people a new way of thinking about the crisis. A number of the books circle the question of what to do with unprocessed grief and pain. Is it safer to give it a hearing or to send it away, riskier to skim over it too quickly or to linger in it too long? Few authors want to posit an airbrushed world in which tense housing situations always work out and ECMO patients always survive. At the same time, their books seem suffused with anxiety about sinking too deeply into the traumatic past. These works dutifully convey the facts of lockdown, yet they come most alive in side plots involving love and manners, the arts, or characters’ tussles with identity. The result is a class of novels about the need for memory which display symptoms of denial themselves. When the books turn to the pandemic directly, they struggle—some successfully, some not—to truthfully represent a period whose historical meaning has not yet come to rest.

One of the best works of fiction to come out of the pandemic was also one of the first: “Our Country Friends,” by Gary Shteyngart, which arrived in the fall of 2021. (Maybe, for COVID novels, if not COVID itself, a short incubation period is a good sign.) Shteyngart tapped into what would emerge as the dominant themes of the burgeoning genre: privilege, the refusal of reality, the defensive structures that people erect to keep out the truth. As the book opens, an author named Sasha invites a group of friends and celebrities to shelter with him in a “Dacha” whose rustic-chic style pays homage to “a tidy European village, the kind that would never have welcomed his ancestors.” The Dacha is a hub of nostalgic fantasy, its grounds a figure for false innocence—which is to say, for repression. Shteyngart draws parallels between his characters and the vain, delusional aristocrats of earlier centuries. The splendor of the estate is rotten, threaded with violence: we see Sasha bellow at a local handyman, while racist bumper stickers and cryptic advertisements for an organization called the Patriotic Defense League hint at the resentment of poorer neighbors. COVID seeks out the cracks in the camp’s Edenic façade, eventually finding a victim within the visitors’ seemingly charmed world.

Despite its sharp critiques, the book is not overly ruminative; it doesn’t molder in sorrow. With a zany, speculative dating app, high farce, and sneaky poignancy, it is recognizably the work of its author, who seems to have slapped on a mask one March morning in 2020 and barely broken his stride.

Not all of the novels find the same success. In “The Limits,” Nell Freudenberger evinces a similar interest in the idle rich, yet she lacks Shteyngart’s satirical edge. Where his novel offers a relatively sophisticated take on inequality—that hidden darkness always rises to the surface—hers devolves into a cringey apology. A pregnant woman named Kate must make peace with her stepdaughter, Pia, who has just come to live with her and her husband, Stephen. Preoccupied with remote schooling and the intricacies of child care, the book gets lost in the defense mechanisms that it seeks to depict, reflecting the restrictions of a tedious, lonely, and confining era in American life. It languishes in affluent settings—a gleaming Manhattan apartment, a second home in Amagansett—attending to how characters distract, soothe, or re-center themselves. Freudenberger asks what happens when structure falls away from people’s days. They busy their minds with minutiae, she answers, and with stakes constructed from scraps and shadows—can a foreign babysitter be trusted to enforce mask-wearing among her charges? But, instead of organically exploring this psychological tendency and its consequences, the novel tries to correct for them, via clunky, schematic story lines involving less fortunate characters. Kate teaches at a public high school whose students are largely from lower-income families. Several chapters unfold from the perspective of Athyna, a Black twelfth grader, who is overwhelmed by college applications, caretaking duties (she is largely responsible for raising her four-year-old nephew), and clinical anxiety. Freudenberger gives Athyna a cursory arc—heart of gold, sexual assault, scholarship to college—but she is most attuned to the cross-cultural sensitivities informing Athyna’s encounters with Kate and Pia, who are white.

The book lionizes essential workers with an equally heavy hand. Stephen is a cardiologist putting in ever-lengthening days at the hospital; passages in which he is tormented by memories of COVID patients he couldn’t save feel like the literary equivalent of the pandemic ritual of banging pots and pans together. Between the book’s piety toward its nonwhite characters and its paeans to intrepid doctors and teachers, one has the claustrophobic impression of being trapped in Freudenberger’s own shame spiral.

Throughout the literature of the pandemic, there is a persistent guilty conscience about having the space and time to write a pandemic novel. It’s no accident that the spectre of the gadabout writer looms large. Sasha, in “Our Country Friends,” cuts a ridiculous figure, and, in keeping with the 2020 mood of authorial self-flagellation, he boasts a résumé that mirrors Shteyngart’s own. The narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s “The Vulnerables,” a novelist, suffers from writer’s block, not least because she has developed a sudden disgust with her job: “Images of harrowed health care workers made it hard to see inventing stories about made-up people as a heroic profession,” she says. Instead of writing, she looks after a friend’s parrot and monitors the virus’s death toll—she’s too anxious to craft imaginary worlds and too ashamed to allow herself the luxury of escape.

For Nunez, the guilt around writing seems to conceal anxiety, a panic at the notion of having a chance to do one’s part, if only as a novelist, and blowing it. She and Shteyngart gesture toward social reckoning in part to return to the question of literary reckoning: How should one write about the pandemic? Unlike “Our Country Friends,” “The Vulnerables” enacts a conflict between two possible modes, rosy uplift and depressing realism. When Nunez’s narrator moves into an apartment in lower Manhattan, she discovers, to her dismay, that she has acquired a housemate—Vetch, a college dropout with behavioral issues. But she needn’t have worried. She and Vetch are soon trading confidences over weed and pints of caramel oat-milk ice cream.

The heartwarming multigenerational-roommate device also makes an appearance in Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence.” Tookie, an ex-con who has found a second life as a bookseller, has her own Vetch; she’s dreading a visit from Hetta, a youngish member of her husband’s family. With her smudged eyeliner and famously bratty retorts, Hetta is heralded as a “monster,” but she arrives tame with new motherhood and radiating empathy. The women end up quarantining together, bonding over Hetta’s cute baby and the deliciousness of cookies made with “triple sugar.”

But, despite these flirtations with mawkishness, both books admit doubts. In “The Vulnerables,” the consoling mood is undermined by the idea that the narrator has writer’s block—that she is not actually expressing what she needs to say. At night, when her guard falls, a pent-up negativity is unleashed: the narrator battles “every regrettable moment of my life. Every mistake I’d ever made, every humiliation, every failure, every sin, every harm I’d ever caused another person, deliberately or by accident, every bad or stupid thing I’d ever said or done.”

“The Sentence” similarly signals that its cheerful veneer is both fragile and costly to maintain. Tookie may not be tortured by Hetta’s presence, but she is haunted, stalked by the decade that she lost to prison. For her, quarantine—being alone, trapped in featureless surroundings—stirs up memories of incarceration, and Erdrich uses this analogy to acknowledge the grief that was often voiced during lockdown about stolen time. (The metaphor also places this sorrow in perspective: even a months-long quarantine does not equal ten years of imprisonment.) Tookie’s memories of cells and cinder blocks morph into counterfactuals, a reverie of “all that I would never have and would never be”: “the silhouette of a mother holding the hand of a toddler, a woman folded along the body of a swayback horse, two people pressed together listening to the low music of wind in a pine grove.” Because of her time in prison, Tookie will never be a young mother, a young heroine, or a young lover. She’s anguished by this discrepancy between fact and fiction, between her lived and unlived pasts. Beneath their sunniness, Nunez’s and Erdrich’s novels both express a fear of perseveration, of having too much time to dwell on lost time. They admonish their readers that, if denial is one form of avoidance, allowing your history to prevent you from living what life you have left is another.

In “Blue Ruin,” the tension between hiding in fantasy and wallowing in reality erupts into open warfare. More starkly than the other novels, Hari Kunzru’s book articulates the dual nature of the pandemic, which was both a disruptive event and a pause that disinterred the past and sent it tumbling into the present. We suffered during COVID, Kunzru suggests, but we shed our illusions.

The novel follows Jay, a delivery driver, who interrupts the graceful idyll of four friends who have absconded from New York City to a cottage upstate. They are denizens of the art world, some of whom Jay knew in a past life in London. One of them, Alice, is his ex-lover, now married to Rob, his ex-best friend. They met when Jay was a painter fleeing his lower-middle-class roots and she was “a goddess, a moonshot,” who made Jay feel like “a rude peasant, lost in the enchanted wood.”

Jay repressed this chapter of his life for years, becoming what he calls (with a hint of his old East End pompousness) a “fugueur”—an escape artist—and immersing himself in honest, unpretentious labor. The pandemic flings him backward. Apparently suffering from long COVID, Jay faints while unloading Alice’s groceries. She installs him in a spare bedroom, where, in his delirium, he relives their courtship and his ascension through the ranks of London’s bohemian élite. In the flashback’s most striking interlude, Jay and Alice hole up in her aunt’s sumptuous apartment to have sex and make art. The fairy tale quickly curdles, falls prey to bed rot. When Jay resurrects the period in his mind, he finds that his memory has rendered “all the rooms as a single shade of gray-green, the color of decay.”

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