With the coronavirus wreaking havoc throughout the world — and American “leader” Donald Trump predictably responding to that pandemic in the most incompetent, empathy-lacking, and self-serving way imaginable — it would be understandable if book lovers would want to read only escapist fiction for a while. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, there are some very compelling novels out there with pandemic themes — many pessimistic about the situation and the reaction to it, others a bit more optimistic.
The first book that comes to mind is Albert Camus’ riveting The Plague (1947), about a pandemic sweeping Algeria when it was a French colony. An excellent novel that includes existential and allegorical elements.
More than 100 years earlier, there was Mary Shelley’s tremendous The Last Man (1826) — not well-received at the time but now considered a classic. Set in the late 21st century, the plague-ridden novel includes three major characters based on the author herself (albeit in a male role), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s poet husband who died in 1822), and Lord Byron.
The pandemic in Margaret Atwood’s absorbing, depressing, yet often surprisingly funny Oryx and Crake (2003) is caused by genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering. There are two sequels, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.
Among other novels in the pandemic-fiction category are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
In the short-story realm, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best tales, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), looks at how the reveling rich think they can escape the plague. They can’t.
At its tragic peak, the AIDS crisis was a massive pandemic, and among the novels that have skillfully dealt with it are John Irving’s In One Person (2012) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998).
Your “favorite” pandemic fiction?
And if you want to discuss how the coronavirus crisis is affecting you, please do. In my case, my professor wife is teaching online instead of in person for the rest of the semester, my younger daughter and her classmates will be home for at least the next two weeks getting remote instruction from her middle school, we postponed an April family trip to that daughter’s native Guatemala, and my local library is closed until at least the end of March. (Yikes — I might run out of novels to read!)
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s upcoming election, its response to the coronavirus, and more — is here.