At this point, two months into a nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and assuming that you’re lucky enough to have been able to stay home, either you’re the kind of person who’s streamed contagion movies on Netflix or you’re not. Either you’re someone who’s compelled, in the middle of unthinkable calamity, to probe the nuances of that calamity through uncannily resonant works of culture or you’re not. (If you’re in the latter camp, you probably haven’t been able to watch Veep during the Donald Trump presidency.) Back in mid-March, a few days into self-imposed quarantine, I tried to watch Outbreak and found myself having a reaction akin to acute stress: elevated heart rate, sweating, fretful fidgeting. During the scene on the plane when the kid’s hand hovers over the feverish, rheumy Patrick Dempsey’s discarded cookie, I almost screamed. It was, as they say, too soon.
But when I started reading Lawrence Wright’s The End of October a few weeks ago, I had a very different reaction. The new pandemic novel from the New Yorker staff writer has been heavily touted for its prescience: It imagines a global pandemic in which an unfamiliar virus works its way around the world, leaving economic meltdown, conspiracy theories, and mass death in its wake. The book is riddled with scenes that evoke the current moment. The American president, a man with his own cosmetology room and tanning bed in the White House (not to mention a horde of querulous, entitled adult children), outsources the management of the crisis to his vice president, a former governor and radio host. Conspiracy theories, propagated by Russian bot networks, prove nearly as contagious as the virus itself, and foment anti-lockdown protests by armed “patriots.” Masks and rubber gloves are in short supply. Alex Jones endures, broadcasting his claims that the virus is both a eugenicist plot and a myth.