Thursday, December 10, 2020

Book-Love in a Time of Cholera

That's the title of Brian Attebery's introduction to the latest issue of the JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS. He discusses how a reader's experience of literature changes under the influence of real-life circumstances, offering a different angle on the topic of my previous post. Attebery remarks that reading in the shadow of COVID-19 feels "rather like getting messages from an alternate timeline in which people still. . . count on health, employment, and a predictable future." He reminds us that whenever we reread a text, in a sense we're reading a different book, because "works of literature are never merely or entirely themselves" but instead "products of an interaction between text and reader."

The pandemic has inevitably brought Stephen King's THE STAND to the forefront of many readers' minds. Someone on a list I subscribe to recently said of COVID-19, "This isn't Captain Trips." All SF and horror fans would instantly recognize that allusion. Even though King's novel is decades old, current events give it fresh resonance and meaning. Some readers may find a similar relevance in Connie Willis's DOOMSDAY BOOK, in which the heroine time-travels from mid-twenty-first century Oxford to the time of the Black Death in fourteenth-century England. Although she gets stranded in an alien era, surrounded by the ravages of the plague, she and the reader know the hope represented by the distant future from which she comes. Even the worst disasters don't last forever.

Paul Tremblay's SURVIVOR SONG, published in July of this year, seems eerily appropriate to the current crisis. Given the lead times in traditional publishing, however, it must have been written well before the pandemic became known. Here's the first paragraph of the novel's summary on Amazon:

"In a matter of weeks, Massachusetts has been overrun by an insidious rabies-like virus that is spread by saliva. But unlike rabies, the disease has a terrifyingly short incubation period of an hour or less. Those infected quickly lose their minds and are driven to bite and infect as many others as they can before they inevitably succumb. Hospitals are inundated with the sick and dying, and hysteria has taken hold. To try to limit its spread, the commonwealth is under quarantine and curfew. But society is breaking down and the government's emergency protocols are faltering."

The story maintains a tight focus on a small group of characters trying to get one of them, a pregnant woman in labor, to a hospital that has room for her to give birth. Along the way, we witness the near-total breakdown of social norms surrounding islands of refuge, such as hospitals and clinics, where people struggle frantically to provide aid in the midst of chaos. In an odd way, this story offers the comfort—like DOOMSDAY BOOK—that we aren't anywhere nearly so bad off as THAT. Also, the epilogue, set years later, portrays a society that has completely recovered. Tremblay's virus, unlike COVID-19, doesn't produce a "slow catastrophe." Because of the violent symptoms and short incubation time, its epidemic flares up and burns out quickly.

As Attebery's essay points out, events such as the present crisis may also evoke new meanings from fictional works that seem on the surface to have only a tangential resemblance to real-life circumstances (e.g., stories of isolation).

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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