The Problem With the Pandemic Plot
“I had no particular ambition to write about the pandemic, but it was like a giant tree trunk that fell across my path,” said Ian McEwan, whose forthcoming novel, “Lessons,” follows a British man from the 1940s to his twilight years in 2021, when he’s living alone in London during lockdown, looking back on his life. “It’s going to be in literary novels simply because there’s no way around it, if you’re writing a socially realist novel.”
Anne Tyler’s “French Braid,” which comes out next month, follows a Baltimore family from the late 1950s to the upheaval of 2020, when a retired couple finds unexpected joy after their adult son and their grandson come to live with them to ride out the pandemic. Nell Freudenberger’s novel in progress, tentatively titled “The Limits,” explores the feelings of dread and uncertainty that the virus unleashed, and features a teenager struggling to balance remote learning with caring for a child, a biologist unnerved by climate change and a doctor who feels helpless as he treats Covid patients.
In Isabel Allende’s “Violeta,” the narrator’s life is bookended by two pandemics, the Spanish flu and the coronavirus, a “strange symmetry” that she reflects on as she’s dying in isolation. “The experience of the whole planet frozen in place because of a virus is so extraordinary that I am sure it will be used extensively in literature,” Ms. Allende said in an email. “It is one of those events that mark an era.”
There’s been no shortage of pandemic-themed content, from TV shows and documentaries, to long-form nonfiction, poetry and short stories. But novels often take longer to gestate, and the first wave of pandemic-inflected literary fiction is arriving at a nebulous moment, when the virus has started to feel both mundane and insurmountable, and it’s unclear when the crisis will end, making it an unwieldy subject for fiction writers.
“You couldn’t yet have the great coronavirus novel, because we don’t know how this story ends yet,” said the writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn.
As the first trickle of Covid-centric novels began last year, some critics questioned whether the pandemic could yield worthwhile literature. “I am a little fearful of the onslaught of Covid-19 fiction heading toward us in the coming years,” the reviewer Sam Sacks wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
Last November, when the English author Sarah Moss published her novel “The Fell” — about a woman who defies a mandatory quarantine order after she’s exposed to Covid — a handful of reviewers in Britain panned it for recreating the grueling experience of lockdown.