Over the past year, I’ve watched Contagion several times and try not to talk about it — but it became a very weird comfort.
So it would probably come as no surprise that I read the End of October the week it came out, and have given it a listen since, in its audiobook format. Lawrence Wright is known for his exhaustively reported non-fiction work — of which The Looming Tower is probably the most known. In The Looming Tower, Wright works to explore the forces and systems that interacted to create the context for the 9/11 attack. He does this through the prism of biographies of Bin Laden and a counter-terrorism expert Richard Clark primarily, though others come into play. Of the many things one takes from this book, it’s that the global and systemic ferment in unexpectedly personal experiences.
The End of October takes a similar approach, but from a fictional — albeit deeply researched — vantage point. Published about a month into the pandemic (great timing there, L), it sets us to explore the lifecycle of a highly infectious and highly fatal coronavirus spinning out of control. We do this through the lens of Henry Parsons, an infectious disease specialist with the WHO who becomes trapped by flight restrictions overseas, and his family, who remain at home in the United States.
The book feels very familiar after having read The Looming Towers because it is framed almost as a detective novel rationalized after the fact. Henry is the knowledgable spectator to the chaos, who helps us readers conceptualize some logic (however grim) to the effects of the virus, but also provides the human foil to the violence and protectionism that emerges as states and institutions are thrown into chaos. We’re continuously presented with the question of “Why didn’t they just ____?” as the global death toll climbs and the personal reality behind those numbers becomes clearer (the description of shrunken classrooms being particularly stark for its difference in our current pandemic).
Anyway, this book became a reference point for me, but increasingly not one about our current experience. Sitting in Europe where vaccine rollouts have been in many ways sabotaged by neoliberalism endemic to the European project (which, I’ll say, I mostly quite strongly believe in), it’s all too easy to see a future pandemic emerge even greater protectionist impulses globally than the extreme examples we’ve already seen.
Basically, Contagion presented a painful story of hope in extreme loss through the systems built to ward against these events, but the End of October presents a scramble for that same hope, as each interceding system slowly falls apart. It shares an individual salvation, but not a structural or societal one — and I fear that this latter rendition is more on point.