BookMarks: Let literature be a warning about life in a pandemic

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As we enter the fifth month of lockdown resulting from the appearance of a novel coronavirus, many of us are challenged by time management. For the young couple trying to do their full-time jobs at home with two children and no school or child care, there aren't enough hours in the day. For the elderly person isolated in a nursing home with no visitors, the days weigh heavily and seem to go on forever.

The rest of us have adopted various other coping strategies. Cleaning the basement seems to be a common goal, as are some of the other tasks that have always dropped to the bottom of the "to do" list.

Watching old movies about pandemics has appeal to many folks, with Google offering up "The Top Ten Pandemic Movies" as well as "Eleven Pandemic Movies You Should Stream Now." From "Outbreak" in 1995 through the aptly named "Pandemic" from 2016 and "Cargo" in 2017, these old flicks are drawing thousands of viewers. When asked why in the midst of a real, actual potentially cataclysmic pandemic one would want to watch a movie about that phenomenon, one blogger answered that he liked these movies because they "offer a strange comfort. Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, there's an internal logic to their story that follows Hollywood's three-act storytelling structure. Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, I can usually tell who will survive the ordeal. Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, I know from the beginning how long these movies will last."

The cinematic approach makes sense to me, but I lean toward the written word, so I embarked on a search for what fictional pandemic stories I might read that could provide some insight into the real disasters unfolding daily.

Chris Bohjalian's "The Red Lotus" recently arrived at our local bookstore. A long time resident of Lincoln, Vermont, Bohjalian's twenty-first novel is a tightly written, tense, page-turning story. The cause of the pandemic in "The Red Lotus" is not a virus but the bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread by fleas who have bitten infected rats. At its worst, the plague resulted in the death of one third of Europe's population in the 14th century. Yes, you read that correctly; one out of three people in the mid-1300s died from the plague.

The main character in "The Red Lotus" is Alexis, an emergency room doctor who travels to Vietnam on a bike tour with her boyfriend, Austin. When Austin disappears on a solo ride to visit sites where his father was wounded and his uncle was killed during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese police mobile unit and an FBI agent move into action. We soon learn that Austin may not have been entirely forthright with Alexis. As the plot takes unsettling and surprising turns, we meet a cast of characters from Alexis's hospital who are involved in developing a rat that can be used to spread the plague. This would seem a strange endeavor unless you plan to sell the plague-infested rats to a terrorist nation, say North Korea, and become fabulously wealthy.

Bohjalian knows how to tell a tale — vivid characters, exotic settings, surprise plot twists, and a heart-pounding finale followed by an epilogue that ties it all together. When the pandemic reaches America on an airplane (sound familiar?), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention struggle to contain it, and Alexis goes back to work in the ER. Austin and his colleagues don't fare as well.

A second pandemic book appeared just weeks before "The Red Lotus." Lawrence Wright's "The Last October" is another nail-biting tale of a pandemic but with two interesting twists.

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First, Wright wrote the book several months before COVID-19 surfaced; yet, the book anticipates many of the specific details of the threat we face and the world we are living in.

Wright's virus first appears in Indonesia and initially appears to be contained by the brilliant interventions of Dr. Henry Parsons, virus fighter and pandemic manager extraordinaire who is dispatched there by the World Health Organization. Despite Parsons' efforts, however, the taxi driver who drove him to the isolation site gets on a plane to Mecca for pilgrimage and manages to carry the virus to three million Muslims who take it all over the world when they return home. The dithering and public relations-concerned vice president who heads the commission dealing with the early stages of the pandemic is more concerned with giving the president good news than with science. Sound familiar?

Second, Wright, who is primarily an investigative reporter at The New Yorker and a non-fiction writer known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book,"The Looming Tower" about 9/11, adds a fascinating geopolitical element. Why does Russia have fewer cases than other nations? What happened to the secret Russian laboratory in northern Siberia where biological warfare agents were being developed?

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To avoid ruining the outcome, I'll simply say that the pandemic in Wright's book ends very badly for everyone. The book has some unbelievable plot twists that may test a reader's patience. For example, after Parsons finds himself stranded in Saudi Arabia during the pandemic's spread, he gets back to his family in Atlanta when he is driven to the Red Sea by a Saudi prince and manages to swim to a U.S. submarine anchored in Bahrain that just happens to be headed for a base in Georgia. Really? Nevertheless, "The Last October" is worth reading if only to marvel at Wright's spot-on anticipation of our current situation.

Speaking of bad outcomes, another book that focuses on a pandemic is "Station Eleven," a 2011 National Book Award nominee by Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel. This excellent novel begins with the flu virus arriving in Toronto on an airplane whose passengers and crew begin filling hospitals within hours of landing. A few weeks later, more than 99% of the earth's population is dead, and the survivors have no electricity, running water, internet, television, food supply, etc. Not good! In fact, very bad!

Mandel does a superb job of taking us back and forth from the book's present harrowing moment to the history of the pandemic by using flashbacks, primarily through the experiences and memories of Kristen Raymonde. Kristen is a young actor with the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel among small towns and encampments in the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare every night, a gesture to keep at least a small spark of civilization alive.

This is a classic dystopian novel showing in graphic detail the loss of civilization with its law and order and technologies that support our quotidian existence. There are wonderful acts of grace and generosity, but the overall picture is one of nature, "bloody in tooth and claw" and a descent by the surviving humans into an animal-like existence. The book ends on a more optimistic note but should serve as a lesson of how interconnected and interdependent we are in today's world.

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After having read these three contemporary novels about pandemics and plague, it seemed appropriate to turn to the classic novel, "The Plague," published in 1947 by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus. This tale of the bubonic plague in a mid-20th-century city in northern Algeria provides a realistic and unvarnished view of what a pandemic might look and feel like. Camus's language is rich even in translation; his characters have real depth and complexity, and they develop over the course of the book; the plague is used as a vehicle to deeply examine the human condition and how people respond to existential challenges.

Like Wright, Camus anticipated most of the actions and problems of our current pandemic — government officials slow to listen to the doctors and more concerned with public relations than safety, lack of protective equipment, beds and health personnel, deaths among the doctors and nurses, the need to limit funerals and use mass graves and the civil unrest as the population began to panic and tried to escape the locked-down city. Dr. Rieux, the Tony Fauci of his day, narrates the book, and his observations about the human character, both positive and negative, provide the book with its lasting value.

So what are the take-away lessons from these four pandemic books, written over the last 75 years? First, reading books, whether they are written by a Nobel Prize winner in French or by a New York Times bestselling author, continues to be a dependable source for escape, pleasure, information, connection and wisdom.

Second, the idea that the current COVID-19 pandemic surprised our government is absurd. If novelists have been able to write realistic books about pandemics, it is unforgivable that government officials ignored the need to prepare for this kind of a disaster.

Third, events can continue to move toward a "worst case scenario" if we are not attentive to science and real news.

As we move toward six months of life in a pandemic, you can read, watch movies, sew funny masks, home school, Zoom with friends and colleagues or if really desperate, clean that basement. Whatever you choose to do, stay safe and be well.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, MA and Brownsville. He can be contacted at where you can find more than 1,000 book reviews and suggestions to answer that age old question: What should I read next?


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