On Pandemic Novels

Ok look on paper I think pandemic novels are terrible. Just like 9/11 novels were terrible. (Remember when that was very briefly a thing and they were all just so very bad? And they all came far too soon? And it was just a whole mess? I still have not forgotten.) On paper I think pandemic novels are like all these new movies they're making now about things that Just. Fucking. Happened! It is too soon to make a movie about something that happened 2 or 4 or even 6 years ago. We don't need a movie about it, we just fucking lived it, and they're all just stunt casting without any substance.


I say all that and yet somehow we already have far more pandemic novels than we ever had 9/11 novels and much faster, too. Since lockdown was so all-encompassing, since unlike 9/11, the pandemic just keeps going and going and it starts to become the rhythm of life. So much so that I still wince sometimes when I see a room full of unmasked people on tv. Even if those people were all there on set decades ago.

I don't know how we have been lucky enough to have some actually good pandemic novels, but we have. Perhaps it is partly that we have had good pandemic novels from pre-pandemic times. During lockdown I listened to all 3 of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels, which involve more than one pandemic, and the timing felt a little eerie. But the thing is that they repeat, they keep happening, they are not new stories.

Sea of Tranquility
The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time, love, and plague that tak...

This is, in many ways, the whole point of Emily St. John Mandel's new novel, Sea of Tranquility. You remember her, she wrote Station Eleven, which is about a pandemic and which everybody decided to reread during lockdown (a choice!) and the television adaptation of which I ranted about in a previous send of this newsletter. She has written another pandemic novel (also a choice!) and you can bet I was like "lol fuck you" when I found that out.

But turns out it's good actually. It managed to reflect so many feelings back at me that I recognized from the last two years, which is a validating experience. But more than that it hits exactly what I was thinking about while I was reading it, as we are starting up a new wave, that this just keeps happening. That whether it is Covid times going from one wave to the next or a broader picture of humanity with one pandemic after another, it just keeps happening and we are impressively stubborn in our unwillingness to prepare for it. That it does not really matter what century you live in, the specific detail of the failings of your specific time, this has all happened before and it will all happen again. Sometimes pandemic times can make the world feel so inhuman, so inhospitable, that it is a strangely comforting thought.

It's also a time travel book that succeeds at being a time travel book (a high bar, tbh) and it is just a book with Mandel's impressive prose that feels both fancy and straightforward in a way that makes me kind of mad at it.

It has been a while since I thought something may not be good and then it turned out to be very good that this on its own was a much-needed balm. Just like any good book is. Even a pandemic book.

Portrait of a Thief
Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell in Portrait of a Thief, a lush, lyrical heist novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing...

I also recently listened to Portrait of a Thief, which is a heist novel. Like the time travel novel, the heist novel has a very high bar. You have to execute certain parts of the genre. But you also have to bring something new to it. You have to surprise your reader. This is true of both genres and they are both very easy to screw up. (Sorry I just did not like Emma Straub's upcoming time travel novel! It didn't surprise me one bit!)

I was pretty skeptical of this one, too. And for a while it seemed like it would not do what the genre requires. But never fear, it has a very satisfying second half.

No, what got me about this book is that it has far too much interior pondering. It slooooooowed the story down so much and I became very weary of all these characters reflecting on everything. Someone looks out a window and sees rain falling and now it made her think about the way things always fall, the way she fell every time she tried, the way so-and-so never seemed to fall at all, the whole world laid out before her so easily, and on and on and on. It was too much hitting the nail on the head for me, so it was just a 3-star read.

But if you do not mind such things and you love a heist novel, then I would definitely recommend it. It is doing some really fun things with plot and theme even if at first it looks deceptively simple and too trope-y.

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