Image: Yuzhen Cai

The end of the first wave of Covid literature

The novels emerging from the pandemic have, so far, been very inward-looking. But the form is already mutating…
June 14, 2023

“A writer will never be able to truly capture lockdown because they will never be able to capture with the right amount of granular detail the sheer number of television shows that people watch.” So opines the wry protagonist of Clare Pollard’s Delphi, a woman who is juggling writing a book about ancient prophecies with the endless demands of a penned-in family. Yet despite the interpretative problems, writers of so-called “pandemic novels” have largely turned their attention inwards, bypassing the bigger picture of the disease, instead concentrating on the necessarily intimate canvas of life under lockdown. 

In this case, the act of writing “what you know” draws attention to the fact that, while few of today’s novelists make serious money, a similarly small number of them count as frontline workers. An element of navel-gazing is something of a prerequisite in the profession, but given that supermarket and medical staff were risking their lives on a daily basis, did we really need novels in which characters griped about the frustration and monotony of lockdown? This question was at the forefront of my mind every time another pandemic novel arrived in the post. As Tookie, the bookstore employee protagonist of Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence observes, “I had read about the strangeness of isolation in the news, but not everyone was alone, or had time to get contemplative. It was a luxury.” So, while I admired the writing of novels such as Delphi, Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends, Sarah Moss’s The Fell and Philip Hensher’s To Battersea Park, some of their characters’ more self-indulgent moments had me rolling my eyes. 

I also found myself frustrated that these novels somehow seemed to avoid talking about the RNA virus in the room. Sometimes characters got infected and fell sick, or even died, but these occurrences felt like plot points rather than organising principles. As a rule, most of the pandemic novels published thus far have been extremely narrow in their scope—shying away from the mass chaos of a global crisis as depicted in the news cycle that we were glued to at the time.

This media coverage encouraged us to think in sensationalist terms, framing the pandemic as escalating numbers of cases and deaths, or with images that could have been lifted from postapocalyptic films: endless wards of patients on ventilators; medical professionals trussed up in hazmat suits; cities ablaze with round-the-clock funeral pyres; and makeshift morgues in hospital carparks. While these images revealed the real horrors of the pandemic, the destabilising juxtaposition for many of us was that our reality was more mundane. “Who knew the apocalypse would involve so much home baking?” I quipped on Instagram, showing off the results of my latest labours. But it is precisely this lived experience that the majority of the writers who have borne witness to the past three years have drawn on. Hensher’s protagonist bides his time making buckwheat rolls and extravagant cakes. Pollard moans that she’s always doing laundry or loading and unloading the dishwasher. Moss’s Kate—confined inside for a 10-day quarantine after being “pinged”—finds herself repulsed by how her teenage son’s housebound existence is a “constant cycle of ingestion and excretion”.

I was initially suspicious of the value of these circumscribed depictions. But the lockdowns are receding ever further into the past, and life—rather than never being the same again, as many people feared—has actually basically returned to normal. And so I’ve come to appreciate these novels as a valuable chronicle of the feelings of loneliness, isolation and despondency that a lot of people struggled with when they found their freedoms so suddenly and wholly curtailed. As Rachel Cusk’s protagonist describes it in Second Place, the “process of simplification” was “brutal and agonising”.

These novels somehow seemed to avoid talking about the RNA virus in the room

Because of the way it forced so much of the world to grind to a halt, the pandemic delivered up a once-in-a-century life-changing event to a writer casting around for inspiration. A novelist could choose satire: in Here Goes Nothing, Steve Toltz acerbically describes the masses as “readying for the adventures of staying home, tapping into their animalistic drive for tinned foods and toilet paper”. The focus could be on lyricism: Hensher writes of leafy Wandsworth streets so eerily quiet, “you could almost reach out and squeeze the silence in the air, like a saturated sponge”. The subject could even be irritation: the narrator of Delphi observes how “weird” it is “to always be ironing or eating cereal or watching a show actually literally called Normal People as the world changes forever.” Either way, the textures of this strange new world were ripe for forensic examination. 

That so many of these examinations focus on the psychological privations of lockdown could probably have been predicted. Even prior to the arrival of the pandemic, the contemporary literary landscape was already one of intense self-scrutiny. Autofiction has, in recent years, become an increasingly popular form— Karl Ove Knausgård, Rachel Cusk, Annie Ernaux and Sheila Heti—while nonfiction writers have been encouraged to take a personal approach to their subjects, interweaving elements of memoir as standard practice. 

Concurrently, we’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the alienation of the modern world—with doctors, psychologists and sociologists warning that we were already dealing with an “epidemic of loneliness” long before the pandemic forced us to retreat behind closed doors. Lockdown fatigue was a real experience for many, and while it might have seemed as though this was a side-effect unique to this pandemic, the long-term privations of the Second World War resulted in a surprisingly similar torrent of feelings. 

As Becky Brown illustrates in her enlightening compendium, Blitz Spirit, ordinary wartime diary entries plucked from the Mass Observation archives were “riddled with fear and defeat”. “Everything seems reduced to a vast, drab boringness,” a widowed housewife complains about blackouts, rationing and the loss of scattered and absent friends. Others snitched on neighbours who undertook the 1940s equivalent of an illicit drive to Barnard Castle: “The W’s who live nearby, have, flaunting their daring gone over to France today for a holiday,” observes one incensed Surrey dweller. 

“Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness,” Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of being Alone, loneliness “is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease.” Just this year, America’s surgeon general suggested that loneliness was as bad for one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While the state-mandated solitude of lockdown was free of some of this stigma, and perhaps too short-lived to take a lasting physical toll on our bodies, for many the psychological effect was still extraordinarily debilitating.

At best, it was a death by a thousand cuts as the triviality and boredom wore on. “That summer, I feel like a monotonous event,” says Delphi’s narrator. For Hensher, it’s more a problem of temporal representation. “Time passed as it always passed,” explains his narrator, an author suffering from lockdown-induced writer’s block, “but what was filling it was not enough.” He wants to “dig deep and say what it was like to move through this arrested time, like an eel through mud.” 

At worst, it left some people wondering what they were trying so hard to stay alive for. In The Fell, Moss’s Kate “doesn’t disapprove of lockdown or masks or any of it, not on principle, only the longer this goes on the less she objects to dying and the harder it is to understand why other people don’t feel the same way.”

This narrowing of horizons unmoored us from the rhythms and distractions of our regular routines. In some cases, this appeared to prompt certain authors to confront fears they might otherwise have been able to ignore in the cut and thrust of daily life, and to try to write their way out of the situation. In Daisy Hildyard’s evocative pastoral elegy, Emergency, the losses of individual freedoms under lockdown are echoed in the losses sustained in the ongoing climate crisis. The novel escapes the restrictions of its contemporary setting by means of extended forays into the childhood memories of the central protagonist, who grew up in rural Yorkshire in the 1990s. The result is a breaking down of boundaries—between the past and the present, but also the man-made and the natural worlds—that is more expansive than restrictive, albeit bittersweetly so. 

Meanwhile, Steve Toltz constructs an afterlife that’s both hilariously and horrifyingly similar to Earth. Resources are so scarce and the infrastructure so dodgy that, when a new and much more deadly pandemic than Covid-19 causes billions of deaths worldwide, a refugee crisis ensues. It’s a reminder that, even without the terror of viral outbreaks, life is a precarious business.

As Hannah Black puts it in her grossly overlooked political-fable-meets-utopian-fantasy, Tuesday or September or the End, “Human life at that point was like a fucked-up car. Some people who understood how it worked could drive it a certain distance, but it would eventually have to be taken to the scrapyard and recycled into something more bearable.” Through a similar combination of satire and speculation to that used by Toltz, Black’s work puts the Black Lives Matter protests front and centre. The novel opens in America in January 2020, and the “something more bearable” the Earth sorely needs is made possible by the arrival of aliens on Long Island. These extraterrestrial beings—who have no concept of many of the organising structures of our society, from incarceration to the trappings of capitalism—haven’t simply come in peace. It’s through their intervention that, when the country convulses into the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd in mid-2020, real and radical revolutionary change is achieved.

Sarah Moss, however, deals in a more literal escape fantasy in The Fell: that of breaking the lockdown rules themselves. She delivers the scenario by means of a masterly—and often extremely disconcerting—near-documentary realism, especially when it comes to Kate’s claustrophobia. Unable to bear it any longer, Kate makes a snap decision to go for a walk on the nearby fell. “She couldn’t come within spitting distance of another person if she wanted to, out here,” she reasons, “and she won’t be long, just an hour before sunset.” Things don’t go to plan, though—and, by nightfall, a mountain rescue unit has been called.

When it was published in the autumn of 2021, while we were still in the thick of things, I suggested in a review of the novel for the Telegraph that it might be too soon for there to be demand for this kind of verisimilitude. The more viscerally a writer recreates the doom and gloom of those dark days of winter lockdowns, the more they risk alienating readers who have no desire to be plunged back into an experience they themselves found so torturous—or so I assumed. In fact, many of Moss’s readers were consoled by being able to relate to the oppression, anxiety and boredom described in the novel. “Some people are enormously comforted to find that we can begin to make art of this,” Moss told the New York Times. This acknowledgement—that some people feared confinement just as much, if not more than, contagion—no doubt legitimised a lot of readers’ frustrations. After all, who among us didn’t yearn to throw caution to the wind at one point or other, and to hell with the consequences?

Readers had no desire to be plunged back into an experience they found so torturous—or so I assumed

Then there was Sarah Hall, a writer for whom life under curfew brought a kind of feverish intensity so powerful that not only did it fuel her writing process—she began writing Burntcoat on the first day of the lockdown, and it was published 18 months later—it also suffused the story she was telling too. Two lovers are holed up together in the studio of one, a sculptor named Edith Harkness, while the world outside is ravaged by a virus with a significantly higher mortality rate than Covid-19. Here, infection and erotic consummation are perversely intertwined. Bodies thrum with both contagion and desire: “We were impelled towards each other—a different sickness. Your body responded to mine, to its exposed skin and scent.” Ecstasy manifests as pain, and vice versa, and the anarchic flawlessness of the virus itself—“Perfectly composed, star-like, and timed for the moment of greatest chaos, for transmission across borders, replication, creating galaxies of itself”—is a dark mirror image of Edith’s most accomplished creative achievements. Some version of this kind of intensity of experience was reported by many, from couples who made snap decisions to move in together to those reporting on the claustrophobia of extended cohabitation. 

In May this year, the World Health Organisation declared that Covid-19 was no longer a global health emergency, but cautioned that the disease is here to stay. If, as some suggest, the pandemic is a mass-disabling event—multiple reinfections leading to higher chances of patients developing long Covid—this will surely infiltrate fiction in the years to come. Kate Weinberg—who has written candidly about her exhausting and ongoing struggle following an initial infection in 2020—will soon publish the first “long Covid novel”. In There’s Nothing Wrong with Her, the central character is a woman suffering from an unnamed condition that confines her to a physical and mental state she calls “The Pit”. Weinberg’s editor assures us that, as well as capturing “the surreal reality of the past few years”, the novel also provides much needed “humorous relief”.

Nina Allen’s recently published Conquest is the first work I’ve encountered that’s a more implicit take on the pandemic. It’s a compellingly plotted puzzle box of a novel about the mysterious disappearance of a man who believes humanity is under attack by aliens, and explores ideas of code, contagion and conspiracy. If it is anything to go by, the next wave of pandemic novels might be steering away from the literal and instead experimenting with new, more metaphorical interpretations of what it means to live in a viral age, both biological and digital. 

Like the virus itself, the pandemic novel is already mutating. My hope is that alongside the adaptations it’s already made, the future will bring a wider range of perspectives on the crisis: novels written by and about frontline workers or medical professionals at the epidemiological coal face; by and about children growing up during the pandemic, too. Perhaps we might witness this generation’s William Maxwell—the author and New Yorker fiction editor who lost his mother to influenza in 1918, when he was only 10, inspiring his later masterpiece They Came Like Swallows.

None of these novels still to come will diminish the value of the first wave of works, but they will contribute to a richer—and perhaps scarier—representation of the experience and impact of Covid-19. As Moss has Kate pronounce in The Fell: “One of the things we’re learning, we of the end times, is that humanity’s ending appears to be slow, lacking in cliffhangers or indeed any satisfactory narrative shape; characterised, for the lucky, by the gradual vindication of accumulating dread.” What, we might wonder, will this accumulation amount to?