When the news of the Covid-19 epidemic emerged from China in January, alongside shocking images of the residents of Wuhan (population 11 million)—I felt a sense of alarm, but not, as yet, dread. Watching footage of hazmat-suited rescue workers delivering baskets of food to quarantined apartment dwellers—who pulled the baskets into their windows on ropes, like the woman who hauls her little dog up and down in Rear Window—I mostly was struck by how surreal everything looked. The crisis felt far away, outlandish, fictional, dystopian—it felt like something that couldn’t happen here, in the United States; at least, not so gravely. Thinking of the recent SARS and Ebola epidemics, I told myself that, although they had been serious, they had been quashed pretty swiftly. Wouldn’t that happen this time? But soon the virus started jumping continents; it spread to Europe, to the United States, then to Africa and South America. In late February, I still was able to read a catastrophist essay in The New York Times with a certain sense of detachment. The author, a science reporter, advocated a Wuhan-style reaction to the virus, wherever it landed. The headline read: “To Take On the Coronavirus, Go Medieval on It.” Surely it won’t come to that?, I thought. Two weeks later, New York went into lockdown.
My first refuge in any crisis is books. This has been true since I first learned to read and became, almost simultaneously, a reader and re-reader. Any favorite novel becomes a kind of Bible for me, which I mine for sortes. When something is out of balance in my life, I will choose a book, as if choosing a prescription, to steady my keel, guided by its stable vision and sure direction, its specific or general insights, its cohesive portrait of humanity in turbulent times, smoothed by the writer’s hindsight, empathy, and, sometimes, humor. Through writers like Trollope, Waugh, Tolstoy, Naipaul, Austen, I could disappear into other worlds whenever I wanted a break from mine. There’s a line from the 1970s song by Melanie, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” that has always resonated with me: “Wish I could find a good book to live in.”
But in mid-March, as the gravity of the Covid-19 epidemic hit home, I turned to literature not for escape, but for information on past precedent; to seek reassurance that a time of plague, like most vicissitudes, could be endured, and to see how that had been done in fiction’s pages. Even the darkest of these novels gave me hope. I began by rereading Camus’s The Plague, which startled me with its point-for-point parallels with the present-day American reaction to the crisis earlier this year: the reluctance of the public and of officialdom to admit the gravity of the situation. From there, I moved to something lighter—Kathleen Winsor’s historical bodice-ripper Forever Amber (which I’d last read in junior high), in which the shrewd, lusty, lowborn heroine tends to her beloved Lord Bruce Carlton when he’s stricken by plague during London’s Black Death in the seventeenth century. (He survives.)
Knowing that the details of Winsor’s chapters were drawn from other plague accounts, real and fictional, that I hadn’t read, I ordered half a dozen novels and novellas concerning epidemics of one kind or another (some were allegorical), written from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. There was Boccaccio’s Decameron (plague); Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (plague); Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (influenza); Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (cholera) and Magic Mountain (tuberculosis); José Saramago’s Blindness (a plague of sudden blindness); and Ling Ma’s Severance (late-capitalist zombies). I was not alone in this instinct: all these books quickly became bestsellers. It stirred and consoled me to see how many people also had the reflex of turning to literature as remedy and guide. It showed me that many millions of us were in this together, each in our separate shelters.
Picking up Daniel Defoe’s novel about the Black Death in London (1665–66), which was informed in part by diaries kept by his uncle, I discovered a tactic, a strategy that the uncle had apparently adopted and which I immediately annexed. He had kept lists of the death counts in London parishes, charting the rise and fall of cases in the neighborhoods around him in order to navigate his imperiled city with a proper sense of the risks he might encounter on a given street. Defoe’s uncle had chosen to stay in London during the Black Death (against the advice of his brother, Defoe’s father). His business actually prospered that year (he was a saddler, a good profession to be in at a time when saddled horses were in demand). Almost one year in, the narrator repents his choice, saying, “Though providence seemed to direct my conduct to be otherwise, yet it is my opinion, and I must leave it as a prescription, viz., that the best physic against the plague is to run away from it.” (Italics his.)
I kept that in mind, but in New York City in March, April, and May of this year, I could not run away. I was trapped in the city because I have no car (nor horse and saddle), and public transportation was dangerous during those peak months. Still, following Defoe’s lead, I began keeping a daily log of Covid statistics—international, national, and local— taking the figures from the online Johns Hopkins Coronavirus map. Updating those numbers each morning and organizing them into lists gave me a small but important sense of control. It made me feel like I was at least doing something. My first job in New York—which I held for fourteen years—was working as a fact checker at The New Yorker. That job had taught me that any situation, however complicated, could be made more straightforward, more reconcilable, if you nailed down the facts surrounding it. Determining the facts, and knowing how to fix them when they were wrong, made a story clearer and more valuable.
Checking facts is anxious work, but once you’ve accepted it as your duty, it gives you a sense of security. You learn that if you inform yourself on a subject, even a complicated one, you can avoid unpleasant surprises. And you also learn, from the scroll of history, that paths to progress often emerge, improbably, from the worst setbacks and blunders. No, you could not solve calamities of the past, or the confusions of the present, but you could at least understand them correctly. This gives you hope. In 1947, in his novel The Plague, Camus wrote of “the gradual loss of hope in a better future” that crushed the townspeople of Oran when plague shut their city down. I did not want to be crushed like the fictional inhabitants of Oran. Facts were my shield against loss of hope, my arsenal for the future.
On March 30, the day I began my Covid tally, I had only four categories: World, United States, New York State, and New York City. The sole statistic I tracked was the number of reported cases. Two weeks later, as the virus spread and the numbers climbed, I added nine countries to my watch list, plus half a dozen states and the three counties where my parents and brothers live. I also added another statistic to the chart: Deaths. By June 2, the day I piled my possessions into my dad’s SUV and drove out of New York, the number of worldwide Covid-19 cases had risen from under 750,000 to more than six million; the number of cases in the U.S. had increased more than tenfold and was approaching two million; and New York State had more than 370,000 cases, of which about 200,000 came from my city.
That morning’s tally showed me that numbers alone could not help me correctly understand America’s post-Covid future, after all. That was because a pattern had emerged alongside the pandemic in this country: a pattern of setbacks and blunders of a kind I recognized from other nations, and other centuries, which I had not expected to see in my own nation, in the twenty-first century. The American president and his administration had ignored the facts that the numbers proved; had ignored the advice of medical experts and epidemiologists; had failed to consider the consequences of past plagues; and had failed to implement a prudent national strategy to quell the epidemic. The reasons for their inaction (and in some cases, negative action) were ideological and had nothing to do with public safety. This meant, I saw, that the novel Coronavirus would proceed unchecked in America as long as it liked, indifferent to political considerations, pursuing its own multiplication and meeting no resistance. I thought then of what Daniel Defoe’s narrator wrote with hindsight, in September of 1665, long into his city’s pandemic: “the best physic against the plague is to run away from it.”
It was that insight that took me, guiltily, out of New York City for two months. I worried that leaving was cowardly. But really, it was a case of proper judgment, shored up by facts and buttressed by fiction. The virus was still present, and though New York in 2020, like London in 1665, had good government that kept the situation from becoming worse than it might have been, the virus was still present and spreading across the country. To revive my “hope in a better future,” I needed to revive my spirits, my confidence, my hope. Books alone were no longer enough. A little before noon, my father and I drove out of my street, turned left on Second Avenue, and passed the boarded-up bars and bodegas (their windows had been smashed on previous days, reminding me of the “multitude of rogues” Defoe’s narrator describes in plague-era London), turned right on Houston, passed the boarded-up Whole Foods, and headed straight for the Holland Tunnel, the car’s windows rolled all the way down. Both of us wore masks; neither of us was sure I was not infectious, though I’d tested negative a few weeks earlier. It was the first time I’d been in a vehicle for ten weeks. I hadn’t anticipated how exhilarating and liberating it would feel to be in motion, the wind in my hair, the city retreating behind me, the landscape rising and undulating, rivers streaking silver, the asphalt gray ribbon of American highway unrolling reliably ahead and behind, and then, as we neared Shenandoah County, farmsteads and barns, pastures, Angus cattle, hay bales, horses, hills.
We pulled into town around five pm. The sun was bright, the air languid; the leaves of the trees seemed to float. The car slowed, making its final turn, and eased onto the sleepy street lined with old Victorian houses wrapped in front porches and picket fences and ruffled with oak leaf hydrangea and day lilies. The hamlet where my parents live is cradled by two mountains in the Alleghenies: Massanutten, rising green and square-edged in the east, and North Mountain, darker and less distinct, in the west. Painted from above, the town would look like a Tolkien shire. Getting out of the car, I saw my mother on the porch, beaming and a little a-tilt (she has Parkinson’s), flanked by her basset hounds, who were baying and hurling themselves at the porch gate with joy, eager to jump up on me. As I stepped over the gate and the dogs to greet her, I felt the invisible clamp loosen that had closed tightly around me for three months. I had not realized its presence until I felt its absence.
After two months in Virginia, I returned to New York for the month of August. In Virginia, grounded in stable and familiar surroundings, cocooned by my parents’ educational idealism (they’re both retired professors), I had recovered my self-assurance. Within a couple of weeks, I was teaching a summer school book club on plague literature (on Zoom, from a study up in the attic). Week by week, memories of the tensions of the past three months of isolation, agitation, and uncertainty faded, replaced by a renewed sense of determination and purpose. In retrospect, I think it was the “superstructure” of home that made this possible, restoring my faith that this country would outlast this plague, would endure, and might even get better. This idea of “superstructure” comes down to the idea that a conviction of solidity creates solidity—even when that conviction is based on illusion. “Superstructure,” by this definition, is the social framework that gives a person the conviction that solid, supporting structures exist that will allow them to act with confidence and agency. My upbringing gave me that conviction, and later on, in Manhattan, so did my community. But for many in the mercantilist America of the last half century, where a devil-take-the-hindmost mindset has steadily eroded or removed protections for the majority of the population, such a conviction is increasingly hard to sustain, or to come by at all. The advent of Covid to America this year exposed all of the places across this country where this superstructure has crumbled, or failed to arise. In Virginia, at my parents’ house, I had found it still intact. The idea of superstructure came to me as I was sitting with my parents in the family room one evening in July, watching old Monty Python sketches as the dogs sprawled on our laps, their chins on our knees. In one sketch, a husband and wife learn that the apartment block they live in wasn’t built with bricks and mortar. It was erected through hypnosis, by a psychic named “El Mystico.” A smug architect explains on a news report that such buildings are solid and safe “provided, of course, people believe in them.” When the couple receives a note from the Council informing them that “if we ceased to believe in this building it would fall down,” the building collapses. In much the same way, it occurred to me then, the superstructure that once undergirded many of this nation’s cities and states, even the country as a whole, has gradually disintegrated, as the government (and the citizens who elect the government) have chosen to disbelieve its necessity. The solid building of the American state was falling down, like London Bridge in the song, and had been for some time. Covid didn’t cause this; it just made it visible.
When you’re fact checking a dark chapter of history, however desolate it may make you feel, you know that its brute moment has passed. The very fact that it is behind you, verifiably, makes you feel hopeful: at least it will not recur. But when you are inhabiting a dark chapter of this kind while it is actually occurring, and there is no end in sight, and you do not know its resolution, it is harder to feel hopeful. Fall is around the corner, schools are back in session, or soon will be (mostly online), and we are still very much within this brute moment. Today, the first day of the last week in August, the global number of Covid cases stands at 23,500,000, with more than 800,000 deaths. The United States now leads the world in the number of Covid infections—almost 5,000,000, nearly a fifth of the world’s total cases. This country is being ravaged simultaneously by Covid, a rogue president, political polarization, systemic racism, and mass unemployment. A new president may or may not be elected in November, but hope alone is not enough to light a way forward. One day, the fact checkers of the future, reviewing the narratives of this prolonged national crisis, may find hope in having it behind them. But what motivates and encourages me at this moment is not so much “hope” as a fierce belief in the importance of persevering; of insisting that the conviction of solidity in this society must be made more real, not more illusory, for more people. The values of the superstructure that sustain me and that uphold democracy—humanity, education, justice, fairness, decency—must be not only believed in, but stubbornly defended, at an individual and familial level, and finally, society-wide, if a hopeful new chapter is to begin. Camus wrote as much: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Hope is not the sole, nor the most important, component of the persevering spirit that is required if all of us are to move forward. But hope is the spark that keeps the engine of progress going. Its counterpart, despair, gets us nowhere. As Camus’s Dr. Rieux observed in Oran, “The habit of despair is worse than despair itself.”