• What Kind of Pandemic Storytelling Do We Actually Need?

    Emma Staffaroni Calls for Stories About Living Through It

    With its sweeping popularity, HBO’s The Last of Us left me wondering: what are we looking for in our pandemic stories now?

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    I stumbled into a pandemic story in the introduction of Jenny Odell’s new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. The first paragraphs situate her in 2020, observing some moss that found its way into a dank cactus pot on her windowsill. “Time felt frozen then, but the moss kept growing, both inside and outside the apartment—and the pandemic had shrunk the scale of my attention.”

    Here Odell is walking the walk of her previous book, How to Do Nothing (2019), where she made the case for greater presence and “placefulness” as a form of resistance to virtual and market incursions on our precious attention. Without our attention, we are “awash in an amnesiac present”; with it, we might instead find ourselves looking at moss that has grown “between the asphalt of the road and the manhole cover… between bricks.”

    A narrative at this minute scale—Odell calls them “timescales”—fits a bit differently than that of The Last of Us, which has its own mosses finding their way through cracks in the manmade façade. These two pandemic narratives invite different scales of reflection for us to revisit the last few years.

    Because of course we all laughed—with derision, our ulcers flaring—when, in December 2020, ads circulated for the film Songbird, featuring a “COVID-23” pandemic. No, we were not up for that kind of pandemic story. Was it that we were still so collectively bereft that any mass media attempt to allegorize our lives felt like transparent propaganda? Or was it just a really bad idea someone greenlit because… well, why not capitalize on the fact that a “COVID-23” pandemic is everyone’s absolute worst dreadscape?

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    Years on, our dread somewhat muted (or just mutated), we have more space, more willingness, to reflect. Is this why so many are enamored of The Last of Us? The series, an adaptation of a 2013 video game, tells the story of a fungus that turns humans into zombie hosts for its efficient destruction, starring rugged and lovable leads Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as its heroic and intrepid warrior-survivors.

    NPR’s Glen Weldon, on a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, offers his take on the show’s runaway popularity: “I mean, we have been, as a culture, Pavlovian-conditioned to salivate at whatever prestige content gets aired 9 o’clock Sunday night on HBO. I think there’s some of that here. … And I’m not against that. That’s the last lingering shred of the monoculture kind of hanging on.” Pavlovian or not, he’s right that the show captured our undivided attention, with its finale garnering over eight million viewers.

    It is not even the platform’s first attempt. HBO’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven, was perhaps our first foray into prestige pandemic allegory since COVID. Survivors of the plague in Station Eleven were the two percent of people immune to an otherwise instant-killer respiratory disease. The limited series released in late 2021 made less of a splash than The Last of Us but nevertheless managed to gently broach the subject, in wide format, for a then slightly more hopeful post-vaccine public.

    Both The Last of Us and Station Eleven share a solution to the fundamental problem faced by all apocalypse storytellers: the need to convincingly represent social transformation, to explain how, exactly, it all transforms. In both HBO series, this problem is leapt over like so many puddles, so that plot, characters, and CGI scene design can instead unfold in a settled, static landscape, one already remade, and already inevitable.

    Like Station Eleven, The Last of Us packages away the first couple decades of mass destruction and total social revolution.

    In Station Eleven the novel (2014), the static post-pandemic landscape, trained on a few new landmarks in what was once Michigan, is configured so that the author (whose 2022 novel Sea of Tranquility, a kind of sequel, imagines post-pandemic landscapes even further afield on the moon) can explore her true subject: what happens to art, and to artists, in the aftermath of disaster. Her main characters, including her protagonist Kirsten, are actors, and in Year 15 of the aftermath, they are part of a traveling theater troupe, touting a motto borrowed from Star Trek: Survival is Insufficient. This will be the novel’s proposition: we need art. It can save us. It will save her characters, mostly from themselves. The heaviest lift of the book is thus not in process but product, so that St. John Mandel can show us how systems of meaning compete for our humanity in times of crisis.

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    The book’s pandemic isn’t entirely off-stage, though; chapters (and scenes, in the TV adaptation) cut back to the initial days—then months and years—of the destruction, when a young man inadvertently saves the life of a child actress who just watched her adult scene partner die on stage while playing King Lear. St. John Mandel knowingly conjures Shakespeare as a plague writer—the acting troupe in Year 15 perform Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps she is playing with a Shakespearean penchant for off-stage tragedy. Regardless, most of the intervening post-pandemic years are inferred, left to our imaginations.

    Like Station Eleven, The Last of Us packages away the first couple decades of mass destruction and total social revolution. Cut to present: another static landscape (Boston) whose ravages are more in focus this time, as exploring them is the task of the video-gamer. Post-apocalyptic landscape as picaresque: like the theater troupe in Station Eleven, main characters in The Last of Us must traverse the landscape with the paranoid posture of a cowboy in a kind of upside-down manifest destiny.

    These two prestige pandemic stories allow their allegories of total destruction to chafe against our inhabited COVID experiences without directly representing them. They resonate emotionally: the early horror, the devastating grief, the world turned upside down. The Last of Us titillates more directly, its language of quarantine zones and potential vaccines unbearably coded. This can have the effect of registering the story’s epic shoot-outs with “the infected” as grandiose personifications of the quiet, microscopic battle with virus particles that actually shaped our lives for those long, pre-vaccine months.

    Where are the stories about the actual remaking of the world?

    Machine guns were not the technology that saved many of our lives from COVID, but I can see the appeal of a static landscape and a sweeping epic for a pandemic aftermath story. It makes it easier to believe in “after.” It proposes a theory of heroism: these are the skills we’ll need to survive. All the power struggles of world history get to clamor for credibility, reinforcing or unsettling big ideas about Human Nature.

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    Or, for another segment of the audience, who understands this as a country whose land has been the site of colonization, extraction, and general destruction for centuries on end, there might even be a peaceful fantasizing here: a longing for a landscape that has taken its revenge.

    But where are the stories about the actual remaking of the world? We are in the midst of our own “after,” and when we look to our professional storytellers for a way forward, we need more than allegory.

    For poet Franny Choi, the roadmap for after is in our very real histories of before. Her 2022 collection, The World Keeps Ending, and The World Goes On, could be thought of as a pandemic book, its title both flatly refusing sentimentality and ironically understating the destruction to which it alludes. “I was born from an apocalypse / and have come to tell you what I know,” announces the speaker of the title poem, “which is that the apocalypse began / when Columbus praised God and lowered his anchor.”

    It’s another antidote to Odell’s “amnesiac present”: poetry as remembering, tending to, grieving. “If the land in me could speak / to the land I live on, what would it say?” asks one poem. “Maybe I’m sorry. Or, where does it hurt?” Another, called, “I Have Bad News and Bad News, Which Do You Want First”: “Try not to time travel, says the voice in my meditation app, / as I fast-forward to everything I haven’t yet remembered / to be afraid of—”.

    We aren’t paying enough attention: not to the many, many endings that peoples of this world have already survived, and not to their, our, ingenious ways of going on. It’s a recognizable American posture, not to want to admit when the world has ended, nor to wish it to go on either. In the choice between bad news and bad news, we wish for none at all. To take Choi’s premise at face value—to agree that the world keeps ending and that it goes on—is to venture a position that neither the past-facing Right nor the forward-looking Left can stomach: that of the fluid, adaptive survivor who can hold at once the grief of an ending and the fact of a continuing.

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    It’s a dynamic posture that is hard to capture in a post-apocalypse that insists on its “post”-ness. Instead, the endings in Choi’s poems are ongoing: “Meanwhile—well, you know. Meanwhile,” she intones in a poem called “Doom.” We reach for shows like The Last of Us hoping to inhabit the meanwhile of a doom akin to our own. But even more than a tour of someone’s imagined after, we need narratives that help us remember the feeling of living through.

    When we look to our professional storytellers for a way forward, we need more than allegory.

    Is this why so many of our beloved novelists chose nonfiction to document those horrifying weeks and months three years ago? These writers must have known we’d need their details, for ours would be incomplete, distorted, or irretrievable. It’s those details that keep our real pandemic landscape in focus—keep it dynamic, three-dimensional, and therefore perhaps able to be meaningfully reflected upon.

    First, we got Zadie Smith’s Intimations. She released this tidy little booklet of essays in July of 2020; I remember scampering, cloth-masked (ugh) to my local bookstore to procure a copy. At a time when it was pretty hard to breathe, Intimations filled my lungs. Smith, always lucid, is unflinching in her novelistic commitment to representing the psychology of those precipice moments in spring 2020. The best thing about reading Zadie Smith’s nonfiction is the way she takes you seriously. She doesn’t need to explain the backdrop to you. She lets her words be haunted by what she figures is probably haunting you, too.

    Then there’s Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, These Precious Days, published over a year later in November 2021. The title essay tells the story of Patchett’s 2020, which, in addition to being shot through with death in all the predictable ways, also involved a dear friend’s fight with aggressive cancer. Whereas Smith’s micro-narratives of New York City—her massage therapist pacing anxiously outside his emptied boutique, she and some neighbors gaping giddily at early spring flowers—stage and restage the signs of apocalypse in her urban landscape, Patchett’s essay acknowledges its own provinciality: set mostly in her Nashville home, the piece relishes quotidian acts of care, health, and peace that preserved her friend’s wellbeing and kept her demons at bay during those months of suspension.

    What makes Smith and Patchett our dynamic pandemic storytellers is that they identify—self-consciously, even neurotically—as storytellers. Intimations’s opening essay, “Peonies,” featuring those early spring flowers, is where Smith shares her now iconic lines about writing:

    “Writing is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department. Experience—mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious—rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mold of their own devising.”

    At times outwardly political, as in her essay “The American Exception” (“Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscured and denied, but now everyone can see it”), at others keenly personal, as in “Screengrabs,” the “mold of her devising” is always one that allows us to live inside it with her. “Writing means being overheard,” she asserts in her foreword.

    “We have come to the point in this story when time changes.” Patchett, too, brings a certain meta-ness to her approach in These Precious Days. The story of her friend Sooki is signposted like this, with harbingers not of what’s actually to come, but of what she imagines we might see coming. “This story—which begins and begins—starts again here,” she writes, 38 pages into the essay.

    Even more than a tour of someone’s imagined after, we need narratives that help us remember the feeling of living through.

    Good storytellers have to know what we think is coming—and then cannily subvert those expectations. But Patchett’s essay about 2020, unlike her novels, can’t plot. If she is to be true to the details of that time, she must instead find a mold in which the epiphanies aren’t external, brought on by literal deaths or diseases, but internal, and made of memories, like one of her childhood visits to her father in the summer: “We were in a pandemic, Sooki had recurrent pancreatic cancer, and so this goodbye reminded me of my father coming onto the plane with us, sitting with me and my sister, the three of us sobbing inconsolably until finally the flight attendant would tell him he had to go.” Like so many of these pandemic-story characters, Patchett longs for her daddy, too, only she seems to be aware that this is for strictly psychoanalytic reasons.

    Patchett, like Smith, has an ars poetica to articulate. “Putting together a novel is essentially putting together the lives of strangers I’m coming to know,” she writes. “In some ways it’s not unlike putting together my own life. I think I know what I’m doing when really I have no idea. I just keep moving forward.” The dynamism of writing, for both of these novelists, is the dynamism of life, of staying alive and awake to the truth as it discloses itself.

    Finally, there’s Arundhati Roy’s collection, AZADI: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. This one came out in September of 2020, and most of its essays were written prior to COVID, in response to another unfolding apocalypse: the occupation of Kashmir by the Hindu nationalist government in India, and the persistent anti-Muslim violence that such an occupation has produced. For Roy, this subject is not discontinuous from the subject of pandemic: indeed, it is why “The Pandemic is a Portal,” the closing essay in the collection, became a clarion call for some readers who, in the fall of 2020, saw the weaponization of freedom and the normalization of fascism both coalescing slowly and chillingly on the eve of the American presidential election.

    “What is this thing that has happened to us?” begin the final paragraphs of Roy’s essay. “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists.” Here is where she introduces her eponymous metaphor: the pandemic “is a portal. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

    These were my favorite words of 2020. They might be some of the most powerful words published in English that year. Only a novelist could conjure such a fantastical yet concrete image: a dynamic landscape, filled with dynamic characters who have a choice about what comes next.

    Emma Staffaroni
    Emma Staffaroni
    Emma Staffaroni teaches literature and gender studies, most recently in Andover, Massachusetts. In addition to feminist literature, she works on transgender-inclusive school reform initiatives. Her literary commentary can be found on her blog, Staff Picks.

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