These days, the opening chapters of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven, are enough to take your breath away. They imagine the start of a hyper-virulent flu pandemic during that brief window before anyone realizes how bad things are. In fact, for Jeevan, a recovering paparazzo, this strain of flu ranks just above a rumor on his list of concerns, a remote and still unthinkable problem belonging to some distant elsewhere—to Russia, in this case, and to its neighbor Georgia. Not until a friend at a local hospital phones him to tell him to leave Toronto ASAP does Jeevan even realize the danger he’s in: that the virus has already leapfrogged the Atlantic, that it’s in the city, that it’s been in the city, and that it’s rapidly overwhelming the hospitals. By then, of course, it’s already too late. All Toronto can do is wake up to its nightmare. And all Jeevan can do, in those few remaining pages before Station Eleven jumps twenty years into the future, when the pandemic has wiped out much of the world’s population—all Jeevan can do, in short, is what many of us were doing just six weeks ago: placing anxious phone calls, watching with dread as media outlets begin to pick up the story, and attempting singlehandedly to clean out entire grocery stores.
Reading those first chapters in bed last week, I very nearly put the book down. Or I at least considered putting the book down.
What I actually did was jostle Jes awake and make her read the bit about the hospitals.
I’ve been reading and watching a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction lately. Some of it I do because I have to. Thanks to providence, or coincidence, or however we feel like classing the universe’s perverse sense of humor, I was teaching an American literature course themed around apocalypse when Illinois’s shelter-in-place order came down. And because Zoom has since become an essential pedagogical tool, I’m still teaching that course. So along with fifteen young people, I’ve been reading pretty consistently about the end of the world. Just this week my students finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Next week, they start Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
It’s OK to feel sorry for them.
But beyond what syllabus and course calendar dictate, a fair chunk of my recent encounters with the post-apocalyptic genre has been of my own volition, and in that respect, I’m not alone. These past two months, end-times stories have had a minor renaissance among wider reading and viewing publics. On the one hand, movies like Contagion and 28 Days Later, as well as novels like Station Eleven, have enjoyed renewed popularity. On the other hand, cultural critics have turned to exactly these kinds of stories to explain our present circumstances. Author Max Brooks, for example, reanimated his 2006 zombie novel, World War Z, for the audience of The Washington Post. And according to a recent MarketWatch headline, none other than Stephen King himself “is ‘sorry’ if you feel like you’re living in ‘The Stand’ right now.” Despite what common sense might suggest, apocalyptic stories seem more popular than ever. Indeed, in the face of an actual pandemic, people’s willingness—my willingness—to curl up with a work of plague fiction seems a finger in the eye of conventional wisdom, which holds that what folks really need right now is a break, an escape from it all.
Of course, I’m not so sure that apocalyptic fiction isn’t itself an escape. Nor do I mean to suggest that everyone shares my interest in the genre. Indeed, for some—a handful of my students included—the world itself is enough. Why imagine more hurt when there’s hurt enough to go around? (From Jes: “Amen!) Apocalypse is and always has been unevenly distributed. And no doubt the idea of settling in for a nice, comfortable read about killer viruses, rising oceans, murderous survivalists, or slavering brain-munching knuckle-draggers says more about me and the privileges I enjoy than it does about the appeal of any one genre.
After all, I, for one, am not out of work. I’m still pulling a paycheck.
Yet speaking for myself, I have nevertheless found in these stories an unexpected comfort. Yes, many of them argue, the world is broken. But in stories like Parable of the Sower, we can remember that people are resilient, that they can adapt, carry on, change. And, yes, other stories suggest, people suck. But in novels like The Road, where so many people are indeed monstrous, we are nonetheless reminded that walling ourselves off—that refusing to look beyond the tiny fold of those whom we deem “good” or safe—is ultimately self-defeating.
And, finally, yes. Despite how it can so often appear, the status quo is fragile; if nothing else, the rapid collapse of infrastructure in Station Eleven’s opening chapters underscores this fact. But perhaps it’s good that we are reminded of the status quo’s fragility—and good not because the status quo is appropriate or necessary or right, but because, for so many, the status quo actively harms.
What was does not have to continue to be. And on the other side of COVID-19—and maybe especially in the midst of it—we have the opportunity to build something better.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.