As this novel coronavirus began spreading around the world, I saw many people mentioning two recent books this reminded them of: Severance by Ling Ma and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel*. I read Severance last year and I read Station Eleven now. I really like ‘em. Both deal with the spread of global pandemics, and have some echoes of the present. In particular, the early chapters of Severance, where the virus first appears on the New York-based protagonist's radar as a news item and supply line disruption in China, felt like the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. The book was great at capturing a certain feeling, the inability of people in our society in general and a certain segment in particular to imagine change and adjust to it, the way our worlds are centered in these very small places and we just stick in the same patterns until it’s too late. Having read that story helped me process the news and understand that things were going to change very fast, and I’m grateful to Ling Ma for writing it.
But while these stories capture a lot of feelings and do interesting things, they are nowhere near the story of this pandemic. They’re not really about dealing with pandemics at all. The diseases (which are way, way more lethal than COVID-19, not comparable beyond the superficial similarities) are a device for bringing about societal collapse, which is an interesting thing to think about and a setting for a time-honored storytelling genre, the survival tale. But traditional survival tales talk about a comic book, mythological style of survival, not how to build a health care system, social safety net, community network, and political system that keep us all safe while civilization is in an extant but dysfunctional state. And that’s the more complex, boring, collective problem we need to solve to survive in a real, dangerous-but-not-world-ending, pandemic situation.
One thing that I always remind myself is that in a world where most people die, the story of the protagonist is not our story. We’re almost definitely among the masses of people who are swept aside in the wave of whatever comes next, and outside the pages of the books. It’s human nature to look at sweeping historical events, whether past or future, fictional or nonfictional, and imagine ourselves to be the heroic exceptions. But it’s math that we’re generally unexceptional, and at the very least any exceptionality is due more to luck than anything we can control. Any character who survives many close calls probably doesn’t if you put them in those situations again.
That’s not a critique of fiction, necessarily, but just part of a survey of its limits. Fiction – taken broadly to include our movies, books, plays, TV shows, comics, etc. – doesn’t naturally deliver us stories about the systemic forces that actually determine our survival. It does a lot of things, and at times can be a really compelling way to capture pieces things that sweep over and through us. Our authors can only be expected to do so much, and sometimes they do this beautifully, in ways that create waves of awareness about community and politics and power and the self that give us the tools to improve things. Often they do this more effectively than facts and realism alone. But the genres also tend to reassert themselves, even with hyper-aware authors.
One future story I’ve liked a lot recently is The Expanse, a kind of pulpy, ridiculous TV show (based on a book series I haven’t read) that also gets a lot of things right. I like how much the problems of its future aren’t defined by the limits of technology, but by sheer greed and political stupidity. It’s important to have worlds like Star Trek where virtue generally prevails and humanity operates near the limits of its capabilities, because beacons of possibility are a valuable thing, but it also helps to have messier stories that serve more as warnings.
There’s one monologuey dialogue from early in the series that stuck with me, that brings up a concept called “the churn” that rings true with our history. It goes like this:
A: This boss I used to work for in Baltimore, he called it the churn. When the rules of the game change.
B: What game?
A: The only game. Survival. When the jungle tears itself down, and builds itself into somethin' new. Guys like you and me, we end up dead. It doesn't really mean anything. Or we happen to live through it, and well, that doesn't mean anything either.
Of course, because he’s a main character in a TV show, the guy speaking does end surviving close call after close call and Forrest Gumping his way through future history, but I appreciated the nod toward a certain style of realism. (The Baltimore reference and “the game” remind me of, and might be allusions to, The Wire, a groundbreaking example of systemic TV storytelling inspired by a groundbreaking example of systemic movie cinema, Paths of Glory, based on a book… it’s just retelling all the way down.)
While “the churn” is a useful and terrifying concept, the lack of engagement and meaning, the ascribing it to big passive forces, also misses the degree to which we’re all part of a collective not just as people who things happen to, but as people who make things happen. In the show, the monologuer’s apathy is a character flaw he has to overcome. In our reality, political and community awareness, formal and informal mutual aid and collectivism and change, are things we all need to work on. We’re not in a neat apocalyptic story; we’re not in a political thriller, either. We’re in a weird combination of a political snoozer and a splotchy dystopia, and countless tiny overlapping, often banal and repetitive stories, and we’re the little invisible pieces of bigger stories in classes we didn’t pay attention to, and all sorts of other things that we don’t easily comprehend.
I don’t know who first said that all natural disasters are political, or something along those lines, but it’s a thing I think back to often. Here’s one article about it that I found by Googling, and here’s a key quote:
“I do not believe in natural disasters,” said Dr. Erin Bergren, an assistant professor of environmental studies specializing in disaster research. “I believe that all disaster outcomes are the product of human choices … We tolerate a lot of inequality in our society, and that inequality plays out on the ground in terms of differential disaster impacts.”
This is a pretty spot-on description of what’s going on with COVID-19 in America right now. We tolerate a lot of inequality in society, and a lot of frivolity, and a lot of misinformation, and a lot of corruption, and a lot of mendacity in our leadership, and a lot of prioritization of profits over people, and all these forces are combining to kill people in our society right now.
I don’t know exactly what the fictional stories are about building systems that take care of more people. One I think of, partly because it’s just one of my favorite books, period, is Milkman by Anna Burns, where there are no real heroics but a beautiful, meandering path to showing the meaning and purpose of little patches of light. Another is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, who wrote very well about systems of inequality and the sweeping tides of history in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Then Exit West kept that same sharpness and expanded to the future with a look at migration and climate change where most people survived the churn but some didn’t, and lives were uprooted and the world changed but remained. A lot of other books, more or less dramatic and sweeping, look at other little pieces of the things we need to survive. I think the less isolated in privilege and power the author is, the better chance of capturing these things – though of course the access to privilege helps people get time to develop their work and travel through other worlds, so more distribution of privilege and power is part what helps these ideas permeate. The stories and voices are there in the world; our top-down political structures and also our narrative structures need to do a better job elevating them.
Meanwhile I don’t know which ways this disaster will break (definitely many ways at once, branching different ways in different places), but the emergence of some level of community and political consciousness is something that gives me heart. It is terrifying and disastrous that these are not taking hold so much among the highest levels of our government and business world, but there is enough fire and light that not all of these movements will be extinguished, not all of these gains will be erased, not all of these possibilities will end unfulfilled. We’re not at the apocalypse. There’s a lot more to live through, and things we can do to make stuff better. As a fellow said in Deadwood, a great show about the warmth of community amongst the cold of violence and greed: “Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead.** Until then, you got more punishment in store.”
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING FRIVOLOUS
I’m one of the many millennials in America who grew up eating Flintstones vitamins. Because I had parents who were wary of television and sweets, I was rarely allowed to watch The Flintstones and I didn’t get too much candy, either, so eating the Flintstones vitamins was something I looked forward to both from a culinary perspective, and a fictional perspective. I liked learning who the characters were and hearing the song and hearing stories about the Flintstones world - while my parents didn’t want us watching too much TV, they did like to tell us about the shows that were part of the culture.
Today, we all need to keep our Vitamin C levels up for immune health, and it may be relatively harder to get fresh fruit for some people, so some of us might need Vitamin C supplements. If you’re gonna be eating vitamins, I recommend the following delicious line, the VitaFusion Power C gummies:
Just look at the chefs on it! You know those chefs wouldn’t settle for a non-delicious vitamin. I might, because I have all sorts of taste for what are sometimes deemed to be inferior products, but to me they’re very tasty. I also think it’s fun that they’re shaped like orange slices.
Yesterday I was watching one of my low-key favorite TV shows, Superstore (ignore the annoying main character and washed-out lighting, it has great character moments, silent cut scenes, and grasp on a lot of everyday retail realities that major network stuff often misses) and saw the rack of VitaFusion vitamins, and I was like, “oh yeah, tasty!” And you know I popped me an orange slice or too that day as a treat.
Stay healthy, stay alive, stay eating delicious vitamins, and don’t get caught in the craze of baking your own bread. In the time it takes to do that, you could cook three whole square meals, and the best part is they’d consist of more than your mediocre homemade bread. But do send me your favorite vitamin recipes if you have any. Til’ next time.
*It’s very weird to read that name because there’s a kid (or I suppose now a 30-something like the rest of us) named Jon Mandel from my high school, and while he’s a funny, clever guy I would be very surprised if he were ever made a saint.
**And please, everyone who is reading this, to the extent possible, delay that moment. As they like to say in a cornier, gentler show, “Live long and prosper.”