Want another reason to feel tired all the time? Consider this: While you and I were doing all we could just to get out of bed every morning for the last two years, Louise Erdrich, Jodi Picoult, and Gary Shteyngart were finishing novels about the pandemic, and Roddy Doyle was composing enough short stories inspired by the subject to fill a book. Hilma Wolitzer wrote a widely praised short story inspired by the death of her husband from COVID. Hilma Wolitzer is 91.
It’s exhausting to even contemplate such a flowering of creativity. But not, happy to say, at all enervating to read. These books are even odd causes to cheer. Because these beavering scribes have not labored just to shame us. On the contrary, they have written books that, if anything, make the going a little easier.
As a sort of pandemic Christmas bonus, publishers also have graced us with a new translation of Albert Camus’ The Plague and a TV mini-series tie-in edition of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
Here’s a round-up of our favorites.
The Sentence. By Louise Erdrich. Harper.
A long-time patron of a Minneapolis bookstore dies, and a few days later the woman’s ghost begins haunting the store. Using that spooky circumstance as the foundation for her novel, Erdrich spins a tale that spans the strange year that included not only the pandemic but also the murder of George Floyd, a year that left many of us feeling haunted by a loss of freedom, a loss of loved ones, and in many cases a loss of hope. Miraculously, Erdrich’s pandemic ghost story successfully, i.e. believably, pushes back against all that darkness. And the narrator, Tookie, a middle-aged Native American with a prison record who’s turned her life around and now clerks in the aforesaid bookstore, is one of the best companions you could have to weather a pandemic siege. She’s bighearted and self-aware but no wiser than the rest of us when it comes to navigating a world none of us had ever encountered before. Her stumbling mirrors our own and so do some of her strategies for survival. Misery does love company, after all, even the fictional kind, and Tookie, flawed, haunted, frequently funny, and always human, is the best company.
Our Country Friends. By Gary Shteyngart. Random House.
Reading Shteyngart reminds me of an interview in which someone asked Flannery O’Connor why she wrote. Without missing a beat, she replied, “Because I’m good at it.” I have no idea if Shteyngart exudes that kind of confidence in his own interviews or even around the house, but he sure writes like it. Which is to say, Our Country Friends chugs along at a steady tempo, smoothly manipulates a half dozen sharply drawn characters, and then invites, nay, demands comparison with Chekhov, whose Uncle Vanya is not only referenced several times throughout the narrative but performed at the story’s climax. Shteyngart makes all this look easy.
Which is the opposite of his characters’ predicaments. All of them have a tough time—an enjoyably tough time from a reader’s point of view—making do. The set up: an author, the ever anxious, always overextended (financially, emotionally, you name it) Senderovsky has invited his oldest friends to ride out the pandemic at his Hudson Valley country house with him and his shrink wife and very smart, very neurotic, Korean-boy-band-obsessed 8-year-old daughter (come to think of it, all the characters are very neurotic and very smart). Also on the guest list is the Actor, who’s collaborating with Senderovsky on a TV treatment of one of his novels (one of the book’s better jokes is that Senderovsky is known for a string of comic novels, but not once do we ever hear him say or do anything funny, at least not intentionally). The Actor’s looks, charisma, reputation, talent, and, yes, just his plain fame are powerful enough to pull the characters out of their usual orbits and they cease relating to each other except as they relate to him. So there is, almost as soon as he comes up the driveway, trouble in paradise.
This being a comedy of manners, hijinks do ensue, couples pair off and then unpair, or repair. The mood is mostly that of restoration farce or comic opera, although things do turn darker as the plot resolves—this is the Chekhovian influence, although best to note here that Shteyngart is funnier than Chekhov if maybe a little less compassionate and his characters a little more manipulated and a little less fully imagined.
Our Country Friends is one of those books that satisfies with its skill: It’s a true pleasure watching someone construct a well-designed story that moves seemingly without effort. And its people, however outlandish their predicaments, are believable and relatable. From their overreaching, overcompensating safety measures at the pandemic’s outset to their utter exhaustion and fatalism in the face of mortal danger, they are funny, they are pitiable, they are us.
Station Eleven. By Emily St. John Mandel. Vintage.
Weirdly, Station Eleven is almost comforting. Yes, it describes a world so ravaged by a virulent flu that most people die, and the few survivors are left with no power grid, no internet, and no civilization that can’t be hand-crafted. It’s a DIY hellscape so awful that what we’re enduring now seems not so bad—so, yes, almost comforting.
Of all the fiction about an epidemic, Camus’ 1947 novel about the bubonic plague’s murderous sojourn in Oran is perhaps the most psychologically resonant even now, seven decades since it first appeared.
What’s also comforting is the storytelling skill of this author, who takes us on a helluva twisted path but delivers a superbly satisfying ending when she’s done. Summarizing the intricate, dovetailed plot is a fool’s choice, because there’s a healthy list of fairly major characters, each of them with their own subplots, and those subplots exist at various times. There’s the point at which everything falls apart, which is the present, and then a time some two decades in the future. But there are also flashbacks to important moments in the early 21st century. And through Mandel’s artistry, all these characters in these time periods somehow influence one another and alter the directions of everyone’s various journeys.
There are two main plot devices tying these lives together across space and time. One is a graphic novel, “Station Eleven,” created by the ex-wife of a movie star who drops dead of a heart attack while performing the title role in King Lear on a Toronto stage in the book’s opening scene. The ex has given the only two copies of the book to the actor, who, before he dies, sends one copy to his son by his third wife, and hands the other one to Kirsten, a child appearing in the Lear production.
For the other main device, flash forward two decades to the wilds alongside Lake Michigan and the territory of the Traveling Symphony, an itinerant troupe of musicians and actors who go from town to town, performing (only Shakespeare) for the lonely little towns beside the lake. Kirsten, now an adult, is one of the actors. Adept with a knife, she is also one of the Symphony’s defenders, and when the troupe encounters an almost surely malevolent cult led by someone known only as the Prophet, her defensive skills get a serious test.
But the real action comes when the characters and the reader try to make the manifold connections in the web that Mandel has woven across space and time: between the actor who dies and his wives and his son and between the two children who inherit copies of Station Eleven and how each interprets the graphic novel’s story and how that story bends their trajectories. Few books are so full of adventure, much less so thoughtful about the nature of stories, how they are told, received, and interpreted by different people. Call it a brainy page turner. And don’t loan it out. You won’t get it back.
The Plague. By Albert Camus. Knopf.
If I had to pick one quality that distinguished Albert Camus from other mid-century philosophical novelists, especially Sartre, it would be his sense of humor. Not that Camus cracked a lot of jokes. But occasionally he’d slide one in, usually something a little self-mocking. In the opening chapters of The Plague, for instance, when the plague is first making its presence known in Oran, we find this scene at a tobacconist’s: “In the middle of an animated conversation, she had mentioned a recent arrest that caused controversy in Algiers. A young office worker had killed an Arab on a beach.” It is amusing to think that while we are reading about the plague in Oran, the plot of The Stranger is unfolding simultaneously.
Of all the fiction about an epidemic, Camus’ 1947 novel about the bubonic plague’s murderous sojourn in Oran, here in a graceful new translation by Laura Marris, is perhaps the most psychologically resonant even now, seven decades since it first appeared. The paranoia induced by isolation and quarantine, the distrust of a government that at first does not do enough and then overcompensates, the irrational reaction to the strictures of public health—these are all things we know first hand, whether we live in 1940s North Africa or not. Of course, Camus was not writing a psychology textbook. He was envisioning a situation where existence is stripped down to matters of life and death, every waking minute, and he was wondering how people react in such a situation. It is a tribute to his skill, and the force of his imagination, that every few pages, you have to remind yourself that he made all this up.
Life Without Children. By Roddy Doyle. Viking. [To be published in March 2022]
Eight of these ten stories refer explicitly to COVID, and all of them wrestle in one way or another with feelings of detachment, dislocation, and the interior, psychic airlessness induced by lockdown. If life before the pandemic seemed directionless for the people in these tales, suddenly it is going nowhere even faster. Formerly fractured marriages now disintegrate altogether. Every noise is louder. Every edge is sharper.
The pandemic haunts these stories, rarely taking center stage but always felt, always making everything unsteady, unreal, displaced, weirdly familiar/unfamiliar.
Set in Ireland mostly, written in the third person, nearly all of these stories take place in the minds of men (in “Gone,” a man and wife take turns with the point of view, and “Nurse” charts the off-duty mental wind-down of a female frontline worker). Technically they’re told from the point of view of the central characters, but “point of view” barely captures it. These people are locked in their own heads and we are locked in there with them. These are very claustrophobic stories. Made of simple things found in many homes. The opening story, “Box Sets,” pivots around collections of popular TV shows. “Worms” uses the idea of musical earworms as its launchpad to describe, with believable lack of sentimentality, a middle-aged man falling back in love with his wife. In “Life Without Children,” an Irishman on a business trip to England tosses his phone and pretends, just for a night, that he’s got no family. Not to get up to any mischief, just to feel what it feels like, to feel something different.
The pandemic haunts these stories, rarely taking center stage but always felt, always making everything unsteady, unreal, displaced, weirdly familiar/unfamiliar: “Social distancing is a phrase that everyone understands. It’s like gender fluidity and sustainable development. They’re using the words like they’ve been translated from Irish, in the air since before the English invaded.” Sometimes the new lingo inspires a jump cut out of stasis: the woman in “Gone” leaves her husband on the spur of the moment. Nothing was planned. “But when I heard the word. Lockdown. I was out of the house. Out of that life.”
Doyle is too smart to make COVID merely a crude metaphor for private domestic suffering, but he’s bold enough to use it to amplify personal anguish.
My sole caveat in the face of their considerable artistry would be to say these stories come “too soon.” They cut so close to the bone of the way we live now that I might advise buying the book and shelving it for a spell. If anyone asks you, months or years from now, what was it like, make them read Life Without Children. It’s an honest record.