The Literature of the Pandemic Is Already Here

For those engaging in quick-response art, mess and chaos—not polished elegance—are the forms to best mimic a crisis that has no end in sight.

Getty / The Atlantic

A bleak fact of writing is that honing sentences is often far easier than honing the thoughts they convey. A corollary fact is that polished, elegant prose serves as a useful, if not always intentional, hiding place for half-baked ideas. Walter Benjamin wrote that a key element of fascism is the aestheticization of politics—the concealment of bad thinking behind bright optics. Even in fascist-free situations, the concealment principle is common enough that I have come to approach beauty and neatness in art with some skepticism.

So far, the nascent literature of the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced my distrust. Three assemblies of coronavirus-response writing—Zadie Smith’s essay collection Intimations; The New York Times’ short-fiction compilation, The Decameron Project; and the mixed-genre anthology And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, edited by Ilan Stavans—tell me why: No one has had time to truly refine their ideas about personal life in a state of widespread isolation and existential dread, and literature, even when political, is a fundamentally personal realm. It relies on the ability to channel inner experience outward, and because no inner experience of the coronavirus pandemic could plausibly be described as complete, prose that renders it static and comprehensible rings false. In the shaky realm of literature reacting quickly to a crisis in motion, mess and chaos are the forms that speak best to painful realities.

Zadie Smith opens Intimations, which contains six short, beautifully structured essays written largely in her characteristically gleaming prose, by acknowledging, “There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political, as well as comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those—the year isn’t halfway done. What I’ve tried to do is organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me.” So, instead of social insight, which Smith admits is not yet available, she chooses self-organization. The turn inward is entirely logical, but the structuring impulse does not bode well.

To be fair, Smith’s opting for order is unsurprising. In fiction, she’s a master of structure and form. Traditionally, she has allowed greater looseness in her essays and criticism—I am thinking, for instance, of Feel Free’s shaggy, implausibly delightful “Meet Justin Bieber!,” which uses a pop-star meet and greet as an occasion to revisit Martin Buber’s I and Thou—but not in Intimations. Its essays are short, tight, and glossy: pleasurable to read, but coy and cagey with their fundamental subject, which is death.

Take “Peonies,” in which a startling, lush garden sets Smith thinking about human vulnerability to biology. In theory, “Peonies” acknowledges the creative and destructive primacy of nature over determination—which includes its primacy over art. To Smith, art and determination are nearly synonymous: “Writing,” she explains, “is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department. Experience … rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate … But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mold of their own devising. Writing is all resistance” to experience.

Of course, this is not true for all writers. Some seek to portray bewilderment rather than shape it into reason. Smith attempts to do the former in “Peonies,” but when it comes time for her to wrangle with the crushing confusion and helplessness that disease generates, she bails on her project. The coronavirus appears explicitly in “Peonies” only once, not named but described as our “strange and overwhelming season of death”—and the moment Smith mentions it, she arrives at her argument’s end. “Peonies” is a conventionally structured literary essay, which means, as we learn in high school, that its conclusion recapitulates its beginning. Rather than continue thinking about overwhelming death, Smith returns to the place where “Peonies” began: a flower garden, and the stifled yearning for disorder that it provokes.

“Peonies” is not the only essay in which structure helps Smith turn from death. “The American Exception,” a linear, op-ed-style argument, addresses death as a mass phenomenon, but never as a personal one. “Something to Do,” a reflection on why writers write even in crisis, reads like the first portion of a writing-workshop lecture. In “Screengrabs (after Berger, before the virus),” Smith returns to the section-heavy style of her 2012 novel, NW, in which neat, titled chunks of narrative replicate the unwillingness of her hyper-controlled protagonist, Natalie, to engage with emotion. But here, Smith is the one unwilling to engage.

In its premise, “Screengrabs” does reach for emotion: Six of the essay’s seven sections are nonfictional character sketches in which Smith implicitly says goodbye to her New York life’s minor players before leaving to shelter in London. The essay is faintly elegiac—as I read, I could not escape thinking that its subjects, even the man who insists, “I survived WAY worse shit than this,” might not survive the virus. But its fragmentary structure lets Smith stop short of expressing grief. The form demands that she move quickly, even as its content might more fully emerge if she slowed down. The lone exception is the seventh section, titled “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” in which Smith describes and mourns the killing of George Floyd. Here, her dealing with death is not fleeting or abstract. Her prose is ragged and free of ornament; her consideration of racism as deadly contempt is the only idea that Intimations sees through from beginning to end. The reason seems clear: Floyd was killed in late May, and I received my advance copy of Intimations in mid-June. The section was evidently written quickly, but it emerges from centuries of American history. Smith has no need to hide behind structure here.

The Decameron Project has a bigger problem than a proclivity for organization. Many of its 29 stories are emotionally neat and one-note. Etgar Keret’s contribution, “Outside,” is unique in that its neatness is negative: Keret’s narrator squashes the common and sustaining dream of post-pandemic empathy and solidarity, asserting cynically, “The body remembers everything, and the heart that softened while you were alone will harden back up in no time.” Other contributors take the opposite approach, pursuing positivity and beauty at the expense of honesty. Take Alejandro Zambra’s “Screen Time,” in which the small graces of family life—watching a toddler sleep, conducting a fingernail-growing race—outweigh the stresses of quarantine, which Zambra describes with less imagination and in less detail. The mother in “Screen Time” manifests anxiety primarily by no longer “reading the beautiful and hopeless novels she reads,” which may reflect a common desire for optimism. But Zambra’s apartment-size world is too sweet, its calm too accessible and unexamined. The result is charming, but, for me, unconvincing.

Still, the Decameron Project does contain successes. Rachel Kushner, Téa Obreht, Leila Slimani, and Rivers Solomon all smartly smuggle very good stories about older, different topics—storytelling, exile, storytelling again, incarceration—into coronavirus frames. Only Tommy Orange dares an actual portrait of quarantine in “The Team,” which wobbles like a kid on her first two-wheel bike. Its language is often confusing, sometimes ugly. Words tumble from its narrator, who monologues about time, turkey vultures, marathons, pig slop, racism, Oakland housing prices, and more, with no plot or connective tissue between each topic but the speaker himself. The result demands attention simply by virtue of the narrator’s need to be heard. It has no moral or fixed meaning; to borrow Zambra’s formulation, it offers neither beauty nor hope. Yet as I read its description of time ticking past in quarantine, as “hidden and loud as the sun behind a cloud,” I felt a jolt of recognition. It is like that, I thought. Orange’s messy descriptions and run-on sentences, alone in the Decameron Project, offer small new truths.

And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, a genre- and border-crossing anthology of mostly translated reactions to the coronavirus, is full of mess. In fact, the editor Ilan Stavans seems to invite it. He juxtaposes styles—poetry next to literary criticism, experimental fiction next to personal essay—in a way that is consistently disorienting and sometimes jarring, but pleasantly so. He permits political contradiction: In one contribution, Mario Vargas Llosa lauds Spain’s quarantine protocols, while in another, the translator Teresa Solana expresses terror at the Spanish government’s treating the pandemic like “a war, establishing a military scenario and using bellicose language with patriotic resonances.” If Stavans’s goal were coherence, he might have cut one piece, but he lets both remain, offering non-Spanish readers multiple views of a country unclear about its path forward—and implicitly accepting his own lack of knowledge.

Uncertainty is a driving theme in And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again. So is brokenness: broken bodies, hearts, medical systems, immigration systems, and more. Lynne Tillman takes a Tommy Orange–like approach to the breakdown of time, writing hectic, unadorned prose that turns into a breathless pileup: “I am exhausted, lie down, sit up, touch my toes, swing my arms, make a phone call, ignore a call, hear a voice, see a message, answer it, don’t, there is plenty of time, too much time.” Tillman’s sentences are cramped, confined, and unbeautiful. They don’t try to impress the reader. Reading her contribution generates the same restless boredom a writer—or any inessential worker—might feel while pacing the same apartment for the 100th day, knowing that there’s nowhere to go. So does the French Tunisian writer Hubert Haddad’s, which takes the pileup strategy much further. His story is a collage of fictional “false starts, drafts, approximations, [and] broken-off openings” that describe and evoke the “hazy driftlessness” of quarantined life. Its choppy, static structure captures the dysfunction of pandemic time.

In a May essay on coronavirus journals, the New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal described the diaristic impulse as “beautifully ordinary.” Records of quarantine may be banal, she writes, but their very existence is reassuring enough to be lovely. In other forms of writing, however, beauty is not enough to comfort. In fact, it runs the risk of trivializing, distorting, or evading the crisis it portrays. Thus far, the coronavirus literature that works best admits certain truths about life mid-disaster: The news is terrible and relentless. Nobody knows what will happen. The search for a vaccine is ongoing, as is the search for sources of hope and meaning. Will the coronavirus pandemic lead to stronger social safety nets? Better health-care systems? Will it produce cohesion or despair? We have no way to know yet. What true story besides an uncertain, unbeautiful one is there to write?