Lawrence Wright’s new pandemic novel is authoritative, intelligent and all too eerily familiar
Pandemic literature has persisted, not to analyse the reasons for its pestilence, but to make sense of our shared reality. If things seem bleak outside the quarantine zone, then there is at least some meaning in our invented stories.
Lawrence Wright’s latest novel, The End of October, fits the criteria of pandemic writing whereby narratives are a means to stave off meaninglessness in our everyday lives and good storytelling becomes a tool to validate our raw experiences of horror, uncertainty and panic. This well researched and intelligent psychological thriller is as eerily timed as it is wickedly prescient.
This isn’t the first time Wright has made a casual display of his prophetic capabilities as a writer. In 1998, he co-wrote the movie The Siege, which pondered upon the prospect of terrorism coming to New York. The film, though it starred Denzel Washington and Annette Bening, was a box office flop. After 9/11, it became the most rented movie in America. In 2006, he wrote The Looming Tower: The Road to 9/11 which won him the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2007. Also known as a meticulous media personality, Wright has been a staff reporter for New Yorker since 1992. So as we embrace pandemic panic and become desperate to know what comes next, Lawrence Wright seems eminently qualified to speculate on it.
The gambit is a familiar one: a novel virus upends the world, leaving epidemiologists and virologists distraught. Millions of lives succumb to the contagion, there is social disarray, economies collapse, hospital beds become most coveted and people are reduced to literal starvation. The Kongoli Influenza, as it is dubbed in The End of October, is far deadlier than Covid-19, with a 45 percent mortality rate (compared to Covid-19’s current 2 percent). Governments have a nonchalant reaction to containing the virus. Humour is dispensed into the narrative when the American president is described as someone with fluffy blond hair who fake-tans.
It is interesting to compare real-life events to those in the book and the similarities are uncanny. The lockdown is prematurely lifted in America which has a devastating impact. One hopes the world doesn’t suffer the same twisted fate as the characters in Wright’s novel do.
Learning from the granddaddies of plague writing; from as early as Thucidydes to Camus, there is an abundance of hopeful reminders that there is nothing unprecedented about viruses and that all pandemics do end.
The protagonist in The End of October is a microbiologist named Henry Parsons who works for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He is sent to Indonesia where a new disease is mysteriously killing people in a small, cordoned off camp. Henry, embarks on this journey, leaving behind his perfect, white picket fence family, oblivious to the carnage that would follow his departure. Henry’s career as a medical professional and his interactions with others in the same field is a savvy way of introducing sound knowledge of the histories of various pandemics, diseases, pathogens.
The Spanish Influenza of 1918 comes closest to the Kongoli virus and the devastation it caused. The Kongoli virus is highly virulent and kills 7 percent of the world population. The Spanish flu example illustrates what pandemics are like. However, learning from the granddaddies of plague writing; from as early as Thucidydes to Camus, there is an abundance of hopeful reminders that all pandemics do end.
What is truly harrowing about the pandemic here and pandemics in general is that; as the world rapidly enters an apocalyptic epoch, the homo economicus tends to always take advantage of the socio-political chaos, revealing its most wicked self. As the Kongoli Influenza spreads, America wages war against Russia and blames it for biologically engineering the virus.
To borrow from Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk, who recently wrote for the New York Times regarding plague literature, in as early as 1850 “Pilgrims travelling to the Muslim holy lands of Mecca and Medina became the world’s most prolific carriers and spreaders of infectious disease.” This is how influenza spreads in the novel. Henry has to chase a particular pilgrim from Indonesia to Mecca in an attempt to contain the virus – but fails to do so. The virus proliferates, permeates borders and deaths follow.
One had expected the characters to tap into their common humanism, for children to be protected, and for there to be some level of solidarity. Instead, each and every character seems selfish and unfriendly. Women are unnecessarily sexualised and all of them abandon their families to become prostitutes. Wright imparts important information about his characters without any suspenseful build-up. For example, it is anticlimactic when a major character dies and a child has to bury the body in their backyard.
The End of October culminates in a haunting denouement and leaves us with the timely warning that issues like climate change must not be trivialised and that nature is a powerful force capable of unleashing demons we fear most, a pandemic being the most vivid example. Should you get your hands on this book, good luck sleeping that night.
The End of October
Author: Lawrence Wright
Publisher: Knopf, 2020