Book Review

Journaling the Plague Years

Seven of the following ten books have something to do with the Covid pandemic 2019–22, and the remaining three address some of the other traumas that consume our politics, and planet, during these troubled times. “Aren’t you worried?” a character in Hari Kunzru’s novel Blue Ruin asks, “I mean, about the future?” It’s a question many of us are asking.
Therefore fiction, according to one recent PBS critic, has become “more like the ’30s,” say, more sociological, and political, more immediate and content-oriented, less aesthetic, more essay-like and rhetorical. And, as Sigrid Nunez suggests, it has occasionally become more obsessed with the way truth is distorted and compromised not only in public, but also in the individual artist’s practice. Perhaps what we should want, she suggests, “in our own dark anti-truth times, with all our blatant hypocrisy and the growing use of story as a means to distort and obscure reality, is a literature of personal history and reflection: direct, authentic, scrupulous about fact,” not “fictional” but “autofictional.” Thus, “journaling” seems also to be part of the process and shows up stylistically in the product as well.[1] The old verbal icon dies, and some new kind of literary expression struggles to be born.
So, Fourteen Days,[2] edited by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston on behalf of The Authors Guild Foundation, responds to the pandemic and to the many social and political issues surrounding storytelling in the public sphere. The Foundation’s goal is to “foster and empower writers of all backgrounds and stages . . . promoting an understanding of the value of writers and the writing profession,” to raise funds for the various causes and institutions the Foundation supports, especially those involving diversity and attacks on libraries and reading. A collection of stories, also described as a “collaborative novel,” the book showcases the work of “thirty-six American and Canadian authors, from all genres, ranging in age from their thirties to mid-eighties.”
According to the introduction, Fourteen Days is not a “serial novel” or a “classic frame narrative in the mold of the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales,” but rather some new literary form. Nonetheless, like the Decameron, it consists of stories told by a group trapped by a plague during lockdown in a rundown Manhattan apartment building waiting for the outbreak to subside. Unlike the Decameron, however, they have not managed to escape to the countryside but spend their evenings on the rooftop banging pots and pans to cheer the essential workers while also telling tales to each other, surreptitiously recorded by the building’s super.
The stories and their authors come from diverse backgrounds, and their subject matter is ethnic, literary, critical, gustatory, musical, confessional, regional, urban and urbane, postcolonial, employing varying subgenres, serious, but also funny and sometimes au courant—as, for example, in an episode blaming the original Decameron for being excessively homophobic and Eurocentric, since obviously Boccaccio, “didn’t care about Black women.” The tales are meant to be “new, fresh, strange, amusing, and surprising,” which they are, though separately and individually, while giving voice to their celebrity authors on behalf of the Foundation’s various causes.
More privately and personally, Nunez’s The Vulnerables[3] raises other questions about how fiction gets written during the pandemic. Beginning with a quote—“It was an uncertain spring”—from Virginia Woolf’s The Years, at first Nunez seems less interested in the content of the spring’s uncertainty (caused by the weather or quite possibly the pandemic) than in how, metacritically, such an opening sentence might work at the outset of this new novel: with a reference to Woolf followed by additional references to Anna Karenina as well as to rules appro­priate to the craft of writing (like, “Never open a book with the weather,” italics in the original), also thoughts about the opening of Bleak House and the works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Oscar Wilde, Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, and Snoopy. Books about books reinforcing Nunez’s persona as a member of an urban and academic elite who takes books seriously and perhaps teaches writing to others.
And throughout the novel, as literary allusions proliferate (I stopped counting after about 35), she builds on this impression. Wandering around New York’s Covid-depleted streets and parks, reflecting on names and flowers (and flower-like names), attending a funeral, thinking about how affluent people can escape to the country while essential workers cannot, the crisis of events becomes not only an occasion for self-preservation, but also for self-examination and self-presentation. So, when she is asked to house-sit and take care of the out-of-town owners’ parrot in a luxury apartment, this encounter with reality—one that includes a run-in with the parrot’s previous sitter, a hapless college dropout and drug user, to whom she is forced to be reluctantly accommodating—results in a host of reflections on subjects like the incapacities of men, the travails of aging, death of friends, Alzheimer’s, stories as a means of distorting reality, pets and humanity’s lack of understanding—and depredations—of the natural world, writer’s block, poetry superior to short fiction and novels, the destruction of the American psyche, and the evils (including to the novel) created by Trump, whose election “changed everything . . . [since] the emotions and the reasons for the characters’ behavior no longer made sense.” Interestingly, having opened with Woolf’s The Years, she later also reflects on Annie Ernaux’s The Years (Les années, 2008), and how both novels—along with the one she is writing—prove that, “These days, the writer strikes me as someone who is becoming less like a creative artist and more like a politician: ever evasive, fixated on construal.” 
Less so Michael Cunningham whose new novel, Day,[4] his first in nearly ten years following The Snow Queen, presents a tightly knit drama of family relationships in three parts, over the course of three days—April 5, 2019–21—before, during, and in the aftermath of the pandemic. On day one, the family, along with its various extensions, occupies a Brooklyn brownstone, home of their many personalized conflicts where Dan, an aging rock musician, seeks to regain the mojo he had sacrificed in becoming a father—a project complicated by his attraction not only to his wife Isabel but also her gay brother, Robbie. And where Isabel, too, as her career as a magazine editor declines, longs for an escape from middle-aged relationships. Also, Dan and Isabel’s two children are equally in the midst of change: Violet, their daughter, is incrementally becoming her own private person while Nathan, their son, is withdrawing into adolescent depression. There are other visitors, as well, including Chess and her baby Odin, produced with sperm donated by Garth, Dan’s brother who nonetheless has been disallowed from being a factor in the life of his infant son. We also learn that Robbie, who has grown increasingly devoted to Wolfe, the idealized Instagram avatar he has created online, will need to move out of his place upstairs so that Nathan can have a room of his own. So, while this is not Mrs. Dalloway or The Waves (Cunningham, who also teaches at Yale, is known for his devotion to Virginia Woolf),[5] it seems to owe something to both, albeit from something more of a post-modernist perspective.
Amid this jumble of relationships under the stress of the pandemic, sections two and three in the tripartite story work on showing how the characters adjust and mature. Away from Brooklyn, after he gives Nathan his space, Robbie turns up in Iceland where he is stranded (with Wolfe) by the lockdown and is eventually struck down by the disease. Isabel and the others find themselves up country in a moldy cabin in the Adirondacks, dealing with isolation, declining expectations, attempted suicide, and intermittent reconciliations—all deployed in increasingly fragmented prose, including emails, text messages, and brief exclamations and essays on the state of intellectual life, as Cunningham seeks to puzzle out the effect of the passage of time and pandemic on fragile social relationships.
Interestingly, Zadie Smith’s The Fraud[6] has almost nothing to do with Covid except as she admits in The New Yorker (July 3, 2023) that her decision to proceed with the project was because “in May, 2020, just as I finally put finger to keyboard, we moved back to England, in time to join the British lockdown,” which also gave her time to haunt the streets and graveyards of her old North West London neighborhood where its principal subjects were also buried.
It’s worth noting that, although this is her first officially historical fiction, Smith, conscious of her place in literary history, has chosen to write a variety of other generic types of fiction under wide-ranging influences of people as disparate as E. M. Forster and David Foster Wallace. Now her nod is to the host of Victorian writers the novel pays homage to as well. Of course, historical fiction is never about history but about how the present reacts to the past, a fact that shows up in this novel’s style and preoccupations. 
The title character of The Fraud is the Victorian fraudulent usurper, Sir Roger Tichborne, a.k.a. “The Claimant,” who in real life sought unlawfully to secure a title that had links to a slave plantation in Jamaica, amid public scandals involving conspiracy theories, fake news, and appeal to a populist common man, a subject that might just seem applicable to us as readers to at least some of our present-day dilemmas. Other topics—like slavery, racism, and feminism—and the effect they might have on the Victorian literary establishment seem pertinent as well. So, the central consciousness of the novel, Mrs. Eliza Touchet, Scottish widow, victim of an abusive marriage, is trapped in a subservient role in the household of William Harrison Ainsworth, once popular novelist now with a fading reputation, who is also her cousin and former lover. Eliza is inquisitive, intelligent, personally independent, studious, with a keen sense of morality, given to bristly and apt judgments on a host of topics social and domestic. Nonetheless, she must put up with dinner parties in which Ainsworth and other major and minor Victorian novelists, including Thackeray, Dickens, and the illustrator George Cruikshank, sort their egos and talk about events from a masculinely superior point of view. Of course, she bristles, but bright as she is, Eliza lacks a measure of self-confidence and assurance and can’t conceive of herself as, say, either a Jane Eyre or Dorothea Brooke.
All this is laid out in an abundance of brief, incisive chapters, more modern than they are discursively Victorian. And the novel only takes off when Eliza personally gets drawn into investigating the circumstances surrounding the Tishborne scandal, attends rallies, and manages to interview one of Tishborne’s principal advocates, a black servant, Andrew Bogle, former slave, now manservant, who grew up in Jamaica. Bogle’s story, most of which Eliza implausibly records in a conversation lasting a single afternoon, documents the moral outrage on which the novel is founded, scenes of violent and abusive treatment of slaves in the colonial plantation death camps that were a primary source of British wealth. Readers with a literary background will remember especially that Jane Eyre’s Rochester and his demented Jamaican bride Bertha (the madwoman in the attic) were both a part of this legacy. At the same time Zadie Smith, the daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother, can’t help but take such matters seriously, an indication of how often history and art mix with personal identity in this kind of fiction.
“Speculative” fiction—like Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song,[7] winner of the 2023 Booker Prize—may also turn past historical traumas into warnings about current or future political dangers.[8] So, in this case Dublin, in a presumably liberal, democratic country (albeit with a violent and “troubled” past) turns out to resemble, say, present-day Venezuela or Hungary in a novel about what could conceivably happen when a government gets taken over by a right-wing cabal—a “National Alliance Party” under a new “Emergency Powers Act”—one that locks up dissenters, restricts speech and travel, withholds food, fuel, electricity, and the Internet, and precipitates a violent reaction, followed by civil war, and dreams of emigration and escape.
Told principally from the point of view of Eilish, mother of a family caught up in this scenario, the story unfolds as she watches as her husband, Larry, a trade unionist for teachers, is disappeared and as she and her children suffer the breakdown of civility and witness the emerging militant resistance. Told in idiomatic stream of consciousness, as events unfold, her apprehension and confusion increase. Streets become uncrossable, hospitals are invaded, homelife becomes more difficult (even Covid makes a brief appearance) and contentious, loved ones and aging parents go missing or prove inaccessible, news from mortuaries is difficult to secure. Personal and public loyalties remain divided, and Eilish wonders whether she should remain loyal to her country and convictions or try to escape to the north or perhaps to Canada. Implacably dark, raw, and prescient, as many commentators have noted, Prophet Song resonates like a new 1984, history disguised as prediction, even if it was written before the war in Gaza actually began.
Nonetheless, we know, and have known, about the power of vast political authority to confuse and inflict pain on an individual, and on cultural life, as in Ismail Kadare’s new novel A Dictator Calls[9] looking back to a time in literary history when a single phone call between a poet and an autocrat proved a sinister and puzzling and humorous example. To get it, we need to remember that Kadare, now in his late 80s, an Albanian and an imposing cultural figure,[10] once, as a youth, attended the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow, a Soviet agency dedicated to producing writers and literature that conformed to the party line. However, he wisely left the institute and pursued an independent international career as a voice against totalitarianism. Nonetheless, his time in Moscow has proved an inexhaust­ible resource for literary fancy and satire based on his observations of all the scandal and infighting (which apparently only writers’ groups can muster) surrounding Boris Pasternak, the publication of Dr. Zhivago in Italy in 1957 and how Pasternak was offered the Nobel Prize but was forced to decline it following a party smear campaign. All that controversy and the motives behind it have been a resource for Kadare’s work,[11] one that takes in all the politics and literary gossip and innuendos, the state takeover of cultural affairs, as well as individual betrayals of the literary tribe, and turns them into satire and myth:


Osip Mandelstam, Irina Emelyanova, Yosif Stalin dot com. Anna Akhmatova. Nikolai Bukharin. Nadezhda Mandelstam. Olga Ivinskaya. Georges Nivat. Zinaida Nikolayevna. Anne Nivat. Café Saint-Claud (since vanished). Peredelkino dot com.


Now, in A Dictator Calls, Kadare returns to an even earlier episode, a phone call Stalin made to Pasternak, June 23, 1934, in which he asked the poet, not yet the novelist, to comment on his feelings about Mandelstam shortly after the latter had been arrested and forced into internal exile for having made a quip in verse about Stalin that the dictator had got wind of. On the spot during the phone call, Pasternak, concerned for his life, apparently equivocated. But that, of course, is the real question to pore over in this tight, little, sardonic, and amusing novel, more an argument and memoir than a narrative, since it turns out there are at least thirteen versions of what the phone call consisted, how it was interpreted, talked about by whom, how defended, whom it offended, all under the situation of unspeakable power and authority playing games with an artist asked to say something—positive or negative?—about a literary rival whose wife he may have been sleeping with. Of course it is a lesson regarding the inequality of authority and freedom of expression (aptly published just last year), but also an observation about the often overweening self-regard and obliquity of bookish people when the chips are down as well as an amusing prediction about what might happen in a conceivable future, say, under the right authoritarian leader.
Tremor,[12] the new book by Harvard professor and polymath Teju Cole, is a multidisciplinary, multi-generic, multicultural mash-up of arts and ideas provoked by the author’s highly evolved outlook on self and others as well as the “tremor” that results from recognition of the horrors at the heart of the highly gilded artifices of Western culture in its current diverse and self-conscious forms. The “horror,” of course, is not new. It is at least as old as Conrad’s Kurtz (also Sebald’s and Chinua Achebe’s evaluations of Conrad) and Freud’s portrait of Western culture as a fine city erected over a dismal swamp. But in today’s parlance it is best recounted in voices that seem most aggrieved. So, Nigerian-born Tunde, the protagonist, a Harvard professor of photography, closely resembles Cole, a novelist, a Harvard professor of creative writing, journalist and essayist, creator of an experimental book of photographs, also the son of Nigerian parents who himself grew up in Lagos—since, as he puts it, “Everyone arrives at knowledge of the world from a personal point of view and is not the poorer for it. Each person understands life on the basis of small personal events. Firsthand experience is what matters,” a thought, at that moment, which grows out of a meditation on popular African music.
As it turns out, the novel is structured around a variety of such insights and moments which include a trip by Tunde to a New England antique store along with reflections on colonial history, Bach, and the movie The Searchers; a shower with soap the odor of which reminds him of Nigeria; troubling scenes captured in his students’ photographs; a visit to Osaka; how white privilege includes the possibility of being remembered, possibly because learning comes in white categories; a trip to Lagos; a lecture on the creation and titling of J. M. W. Turner’s painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), its provenance, the historical facts it was based on, what was real and what disguised, also its later treatment as a work of art. Later passages of such “sustained shocks” include a further trip to Lagos that includes bits of personal history, but also flash portraits of people of all classes and occupations who live there along with other, subsequent realizations about the indivisible character of popular from high art, the “embodiment” inherent in music, and Harvard’s complicity in the slave trade. Altogether an effort to dive beneath the surface of Western art, and art making, by a highly involved author and protagonist, to uncover the shocks of its abuses and of how, perhaps, as a postcolonial inheritor, to live with them in a new self-critical multicultural (if not to say “woke”) present, Tremor reads in bits and pieces like an exciting personal memoir, albeit from a new academic, and elite, East Coast, postcolonial perspective.
Next, a couple of books by older American writers, employing more familiar narrative styles and techniques, nonetheless hinge on their impressions of what’s adrift in America, pandemic included, explicitly signaled in their titles.
American Spirits,[13] by the late Russell Banks is a collection of three longish short stories set in Sam Dent, a small rural community in Upstate New York, in which “spirits” have been clearly troubled by recent changes to its former lifestyle. The first story, “Nowhere Man,” outlines the loss of certainty, identity, and self-esteem that comes about when a young working-class father, struggling to support his family and maintain his sense of inheritance—wearing a MAGA cap—is forced to sell the family farm to an outsider, a former member of the IDF, who is setting up a camp for training white supremacists on land his family had formerly owned, leading to a violent clash of identities and lifestyles. The second story, “Homeschooling,” involves a different kind of encounter between a traditional couple and their neighbors, a lesbian couple and their four adopted “troubled” children brought north from Texas supported on welfare, the misunderstandings and abuses generated by their isolation and homeschooling, and the tragedy that ensues. The third, “Kidnapped,” involving some trips into Canada, is about pervasive criminality, violence and drug trafficking. Together, the stories provide a disturbing portrait of what may be happening to rural America by a traditional storyteller who has a history of documenting the American experience.
A longer, and in many ways more openly satirical fiction, America Fantastica[14] by Tim O’Brien, borrows some of the sixties spirit of his Vietnam-era novels Going After Cacciato and the celebrated The Things They Carried, borrowing also perhaps from the spirit of gonzo journalism and storytelling, say, Thomas Pynchon meets Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion accompanied by Simon & Garfunkel—having “all come to look for America.” Among other things, the novel features robbery, followed by road trips involving various hot cars to various places like Los Angeles, Mexico, Texas, Las Vegas and Reno, and even Minnesota, doused in the spirit of Covid, the perpetrators variously dogged by corrupt bankers, ex-cons, questionable cops, gangsters, superrich corporate Beverly Hills financiers, and the Gatsby-like lies the principal characters all tell themselves in order to live glamorously while also trying to get back to “normal” and trying simultaneously to get right with Jesus. Altogether there is plenty of opportunity to point out America’s hypocrisy, violence, concupiscence, greed, innocence, stupidity, class-consciousness, and good times, while looking for this or that kind of redemption likely to be found only on the road.
What’s new in all this is the manner in which the narrative pauses at critical moments to lecture readers more directly on the conviction that the source of all our troubles—what makes us fantastic—is our “mythomania,” that is, stories, lies, whoppers we tell ourselves to make us greater than we actually are, a “lying contagion,” which, like the pandemic, had “swept across the American heartland . . . [infecting] whole cultures” with the “fabulous and fantastic . . .” “Almost always,” we’re told, “mythomaniacs lied to reinforce fragile egos, decorating their lives with unearned grandeur.” So, “If you’re fed up with government, you hike up your trousers and throw your hat in the ring. You become the government.” And, if you’re POTUS, you “can’t lose, of course . . . because I am who I am, but if I did lose . . . I wouldn’t have to leave this place, would I?” In fact, by calling “skinheads, Nazis, xenophobes . . . ‘very fine people,’” POTUS had made mythomania, “the nation’s pornography of choice.” So, Americans should “Think big” and buy everything, even the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, all the schools, all the libraries, “no more Darwin and dirty words.” Also, if people are dying of Covid, declare the virus a “hoax.” “You’re a story,” it turns out, capable of re-inventing yourself endlessly. “It’s astonishing. You unplug yourself and plug in somebody new, like updating a computer.” It’s the great American enterprise: sententiously, “we trade in reality for whatever keeps us going.” And who’s to say that’s wrong?
Finally, Hari Kunzru’s Blue Ruin[15] takes the Covid experience rather literally in a story about the social and cultural difficulties faced by fine art and artists in the current environment. Beginning classically, in medias res, the novel’s protagonist Jay is an undocumented alien, a Covid survivor and delivery boy, who having emigrated from England is living out of his car in Upstate New York. Once an artist with a promising career, now he is an essential worker who, out on a delivery, comes to an Edenic compound that just happens to be a place where Alice, his former lover, and his former art school pal, Rob, along with some other arts-related folks, like armed art agent Marshal and his girlfriend Nicole, are living to escape the pandemic. After the initial shock of their encounter, Alice notices how tired Jay is and puts him up in an apartment in a barn on the estate where he reminisces about the past, about his and Rob’s art school days and studio life with Alice in London Fields at a time when life for a young group of artists was radically exciting, exploratory, drug-ridden and comme il faut, before Jay’s decision to drop out and his split-up with Alice.
In the second half, when the novel returns to the present day, the discussion about art continues, about its meaning, practice, purpose, and socioeconomic status both in London years before and now here on an isolated Upstate compound—armed and wired with surveillance cameras among the sculptures—on loan from a wealthy collector. Although they are safe from the pandemic, however, Eden is not so sweet: Rob is making no progress on an expensive commission, and Alice, by helping Jay, is betraying Rob.
Without space, may I say the aesthetic discussion is cogent and intelligent, descriptive of the social, economic, and art-historical, even racial implications (only later in the novel do we learn that Jay is black) of how artists think and how their work is produced and consumed among present historical circumstances. Kunzru, who is both a journalist and a novelist, son of an Indian Kashmiri father and a British mother, highly regarded as a spokesman for a new, Granta-acknowledged generation, who has both documentary and pop-cultural instincts,[16] wants not only to present a picture of the current “scene”—sociological, pathological, and virological—but also to argue a thesis about how art, suspicious about its own credibility, talks about itself in contemporary society and in a new social and rhetorical critical environment.


[1] Six of the current authors have been teachers in creative writing programs and are highly visible online in blogs, Substacks, etc. Another one attended the Gorky Institute during the Soviet era when arguments about the social purposes of literature were similarly top of mind and a test of one’s personal loyalty and ideological commitment.
[2] FOURTEEN DAYS, by The Authors Guild Foundation, ed. by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston. Harper. $32.00.
[3] THE VULNERABLES, by Sigrid Nunez. Riverhead Books. $28.00.
[4] DAY, by Michael Cunningham. Random House. $28.00.
[5] There is also a section devoted to an analysis of Edith Wharton.
[6] THE FRAUD, by Zadie Smith. Penguin Press. $29.00.
[7] PROPHET SONG, by Paul Lynch. Atlantic Monthly Press. $26.00.
[8] In current usage, the phrase “speculative fiction” comes from Margaret Atwood and discussions of The Handmaid’s Tale.
[9] A DICTATOR CALLS, by Ismail Kadare, trans. by John Hodgson. Counterpoint. $16.95p.
[10] Kadare has been nominated fifteen times for the Nobel Prize, was the recipient of the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005, and has been compared to Kafka and Milan Kundera for his sardonic vision, displayed in a variety of literary genres (parable, myth, etc.) in a brooding and melancholic style.
[11] E.g.,Twilight of the Eastern Gods, which I reviewed in 2015.
[12] TREMOR, by Teju Cole. Random House. $28.00.
[13] AMERICAN SPIRITS, by Russell Banks. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.00.
[14] AMERICA FANTASTICA, by Tim O’Brien. Mariner Books. $32.00.
[15] BLUE RUIN, by Hari Kunzru. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.00.
[16] I don’t know why the title Blue Ruin is also the title of a popular revenge movie made in 2013 (actually there are three works with that title if you include a painting in the present novel). Kunzru also derived the title of his previous novel Red Pill from an episode in the The Matrix.