Commonplace Book: On My Pandemic Novella

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“I didn’t know my neighbors until the pandemic quarantine,” begins the novella announced here, my contribution to the literature of the present crisis.

I began the novella on March 22 and finished a draft on April 18. I am revising now, but I think the narrative benefits from a swiftness of composition, so I don’t expect I’ll overwork it. I’ll make sure everything lines up, add a bit of texture here and there, and delete those over-obvious lines, those embarrassing eructations of subtext into text, that inevitability happen in the heat of composition.

I didn’t exactly use César Aira’s “flight forward” style of novella-writing to the letter—he doesn’t do any research, whereas I google things as I go, and he has the avant-gardist’s total unconcern for consistency of tone and genre or plausibility of event and character, whereas I am too Anglo-bourgeois or something to let go completely of these—but I was inspired by his odd combination of drive and levity. I devised a simple plot, a handful of characters, and a single setting, all informed by the novel virus and its public fallout.

There was, as I mentioned in the post linked above, a quarrel among literary types on Twitter about whether or not anyone should write pandemic fiction. Surprisingly, no one raised any ethical questions about the potential for such fiction to be exploitative. This was a pleasant surprise, given the last decade’s tiresome moralizing, because I don’t think such concerns apply: anyone has the right to create art about world-historical events, in my view. Moreover, anyone is vulnerable to the disease, and everyone is subject to the social and political repercussions of its spread. No, the Twitterati seemed more concerned that the hypothetical pandemic novel would turn out to be more autofiction but with added virions and unemployment statistics: numbered paragraphs of a wry self-lacerating Tractatus on how much writers for leftist little magazines should tip their Instacart drivers and the like. That would be bad, but I’m happy to tell you that some of us—not that the Twitterati notices—can still invent a story about but better than real life.

Still, why did I write a novella about the pandemic, other than because I could and had little better to do? For a number of reasons, public and personal.

First, I think we underrate the continuing importance of literature, in the sense of imaginative writing sans images, to history. When it comes to recording the everyday experience of world-historical events—their emotional texture, I mean, not their factual basis; there are no facts in my fiction if I can help it—we writers have been given a new lease on life by the digital fragmentation of media. As this article explains, a real effort against entropy must be made to salvage the million bits of ephemera that make up the audiovisual archive of our experiences today. Contrast this to the dominance of the centralized cinematic and then televisual images that reigned for much of the last century, images that displaced words as bearers of history. I picture 1850s London in color because I’ve read Dickens, but I imagine 1950s New York in black and white because, no matter what I’ve read, all I can see in my head are photos and movies. But with media radically dispersed across digital platforms and in danger of simply evanescing due to technological obsolescence, those of us dedicated to the ancient technology of the word and the modern technology of print may yet see ourselves restored to the makers of the record. All the more reason, I thought, to sit down and transform this experience into inventive language.

More personally, a sorrow of getting older as a writer is the knowledge that you’re repeating yourself. I wrote about this topic five years ago in a completely unhesitating defense of authors against this charge that they recycle material: who cares, I said, if Kazuo Ishiguro can’t do without repression, if Philip Roth can’t do without the male body, if Alan Moore can’t do without the battle between authority and anarchy? All we want is for the best writers to play great variations on the obsessions that make them who they are and their work what it is. Yet even when I was in my teens, I told a friend that I was writing a story about the conflict between a divinity student and a physics professor, and he said, “All your work is about the conflict between a divinity student and a physics professor!” I was then still suffering the after-effects of Catholic school; now, in my 30s, when I am still feeling the after-effects of graduate school, the personae have been updated to an experimental visual artist and a leftist ideologue, but I fear the conflict remains largely the same. So, even at the risk of exploiting a public emergency, I decided to welcome the external world’s insistence on being acknowledged by taking this crisis directly as subject matter. I certainly wouldn’t have written about a pandemic and a quarantine if this hadn’t happened; perverse as it may seem, it lets a little fresh air into my fictional cosmos. If my artist and my ideologue still wrangle, at least they do it in intriguingly altered circumstances.

You might be wondering if I was inspired to write a nearly book-length text in a month by all those memes floating around at the beginning of the pandemic about how Shakespeare composed King Lear and Newton developed the calculus during plague quarantines. I was not—I’m very lazy and not that suggestible. I thought the righteous responses to those memes were annoying, though. People said, Oh well, of course Shakespeare and Newton could do that because they didn’t other jobs, were men who didn’t have to care for children, etc.—this adolescent miserabilism of today’s political left-liberals, their cynicism posing as sentiment, which maintains that humanity’s historical achievements, because they were engendered under inequitable social conditions, are therefore not in fact achievements. A slander on universal potential, it seems to me. And in any case, no one actually thinks writing a play is more important than caring for a child (though some people probably do think advancing science is more important than both; I am not one of them). Yes, with the sudden absence of two commutes—one afoot, one on public transport—to two jobs, and since I do not have children, I had time to write a book. So sue me!

Why, anyway, a novella and not a novel? Novellas are generally underrated; they’ve declined from the prestige they enjoyed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the models of the form were written. Ironically, as fragmented media bludgeons our attention spans, we overcompensate by binge-watching whole TV seasons in a day and binge-reading novel-sequences, whether YA fantasy or postpostmodernist autofiction, that run to millions of pages in a week. We have lost the art of focused attention, of poetic compression, demanded by the shorter narrative forms. Also, I think novellas suit my gifts as a fiction writer: I am more an impressionist than a realist when it comes to painting my stories’ scenery, and I favor somewhat starkly symbolic confrontations among characters rather than elaborate life histories. George Steiner, may he rest in peace, would say I descend from Shakespeare rather than Homer—and I would take the compliment!

Novellas, because brief, can also be a laboratory for fictional experiment, can even have the quality of a manifesto, a prelude to larger developments. For example, in the novella I wrote, I was very concerned to set the fiction apart from the real world, especially in a context where platforms are removing what they deem “misinformation” about the novel virus, even though the information coming from world governments, credentialed media, and public health authorities has hardly been unimpeachable. To achieve this irrealism, I do not mention the year, the specific name of the malady in question, the names of government officials, or any other obvious topical referents beyond the work’s vaguely being set in the present (my characters have smartphones and essentially live on the Internet).

On the other hand, much as I disparage contemporary autobiographical narrative—to put my oversimplified credo crudely: nobody gives a shit about your boring life!—I also don’t care for the outright fantasy and fabulism that have become fashionable at autobiography’s other pole. We don’t want to lose entirely the traditional purpose of prose fiction, which goes back well before 18th- or 19th-century realism, back, at least, to another plague author, Boccaccio: to tell made-up stories about the real world.

On still a third hand—remember to wash all these hands—how real has the real world felt to you lately? Or how real has it ever felt to anyone? We can blame our disorientation on social media if we want, but I think that since the world is never what we think it should be, it always feels a bit like a nightmare. So, without venturing into outright surrealism, I create in my novella a dream-like air. I never violate the laws of physics, so it can’t be called a fantasy, but neither do I bind myself to what normal people do every day. A book of 100 pages is a concentration of life, not its transcription. If I ever thought I was going too far when I was writing, I asked myself: would Shakespeare dare? would Hawthorne? Virginia Woolf? Toni Morrison? They would have dared; they did dare. And if you ask how can I compare myself to the giants, I will say that we only have one life, and that there’s no time for timidity. As Emerson put it:

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

If anyone reading this has a small press and wants to publish my book—I inquire semi-facetiously, as if anyone has money to throw around these days!—please let me know. Otherwise I will do it myself. I aim to get it out by May. The book should be as urgent as the times, should be 21st-century fiction. I did my best. Watch this space.

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