Essay Society

The reality effect: The pandemic novel

Autumn 2019, the dying months of what is now preserved in our consciousness as the last normal year. I’d been selected for a writer’s residency in a remote island in the Åland archipelago, in the Baltic Sea, to make a start at writing a science-fiction novel. Driving through the sparsely populated main street, I remark to the programme coordinator that seeing so few people in India would mean the apocalypse had already happened. She finds this amusing.

Jumpcut a few months later, and I am on my grocery run in Hyderabad: the roads are utterly empty except for a party of peacocks strolling about — they’ve escaped the confines of the large park in the heart of the city. The isolation which I wanted to distil for my novel, for which I’d travelled so far, had come home.

Lost logic

I now have to place the pandemic somewhere in my novel’s timeline. My concerns are insignificant compared to authors who had books coming out in that fraught time. Samit Basu’s novel of speculative fiction, the long-awaited Chosen Spirits set in a cyberpunk Delhi a decade from now, launched just as India was descending into lockdown. The protagonist Joey’s growing-up years are our present: as a teenager she attends the anti-CAA protests. What would Joey make of the virus?

I ask Basu whether he felt it necessary to mention it. He says, “There were maybe a couple of references to pandemics of the past from previous research, but I didn’t want to make any major last-minute changes based on an ongoing event.”

Against a pandemic that has wrought so much destruction, the travails of fiction writers perhaps don’t count for much. Yet it is undeniable that for novelists engaged in years of literary labour, the changes that have followed in the wake of this disaster have upended their carefully-crafted fictional worlds.

Science-fiction writers bank on what Philip K. Dick called the “shock of dysrecognition” which is a “conceptual dislocation” on encountering a world just like ours, but differing in a crucial way. Other genres have more basic problems — Zoom calls aren’t conducive to either romance or murder.

They are still figuring out ways to reconcile what was to what is. Says novelist Amrita Tripathi of her manuscript, “It felt like it was missing something. The internal logic of the narrative... just doesn’t hang right any more. Not the least because one character’s major developments have to do with isolating herself as part of her own quest — this felt a bit hollow given all that’s happening.”

Too huge to ignore

In Devapriya Roy’s recent short story, there’s a meet cute between boy and girl, with boy refusing to wear a mask. But her work-in-progress novel has hit a roadblock. Roy says, “I began a novel just before the pandemic; it is one I have been planning to write for a decade... I have paused completely now, because I am not sure how I will incorporate the pandemic into it. But also, given that it is somewhat the story of our generation, how can I not?”

Of course, there is no reason why the pandemic has to feature. After all, the Napoleonic wars famously don’t intrude at all in Jane Austen’s novels. Even the Spanish flu didn’t make a mark in Western literature, thanks to what Israeli historian Guy Beiner calls “social forgetting”. Instead, the violent narrative sweep of the First World War captured the public imagination and held on to it. For Basu, eliding the pandemic for an upcoming U.S. edition of Chosen Spirits was not an option. “It is too huge an event to ignore... I did a rewrite incorporating the events of 2020/21 into the worldbuild, as backstory for the characters in the near-future world,” he says.

So it has to show up in the literary strata, just as the earth records all its cataclysms. But still, Tripathi says, “For the moment, I don’t think I can write the pandemic in — it’s too real, gritty, horrific. But I don’t think I can sidestep it entirely either.”As the war in Ukraine grabs headlines, perhaps the pandemic is already being folded into the larger narrative of worldwide suffering.

What is Basu’s ‘view from the future’ in his revised version? “I decided to take the optimistic stance, that we move past this pandemic and don’t have another one of this scale immediately after,” he says.

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2022 9:16:23 am |