In my denial at the prevalence of the coronavirus, I kept telling my friends that the novel hasn’t started yet. The dramatic thing that would hook the reader – the Prime Minister dying, the virus mutating after a successful vaccine and killing even those in perfect health, countries turning against one another – is still is yet to happen.
I could, perhaps, in my life, start the novel now: the University of Cambridge is shutting down for the first time since the Bubonic plague in 1665, when Isaac Newton was sent home and began theorising on gravity. Stephen Toope, Vice Chancellor of the University, said, “We are all facing an unprecedented crisis. It may be months before we resume normal activity.” My life is on hold, for all intents and purposes, for the next six months, when I can return to University in October. So, I could, in theory, start the novel now – I just think it would be very boring.
This theoretical novel could, perhaps, also have started a couple of weeks ago in Italy, or a couple of months ago in China. It could begin in any country that is currently in lock down, because it’s a surreal thing to experience, something this generation of humanity has never experienced before. No one quite knows what to do. We’re all taking it day by day.
I’m basing this ‘novel’ on my favourite post-apocalyptic book, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I’m itching to reread it, to see, with a new perspective (more enlightened to the possibility of a pandemic), how Mandel envisioned the apocalypse. The book opens with the death of a celebrity on stage, and the narrative shifts both through time and characters to track the spread of her pandemic, and its repercussions, across the world. This is what I mean when I say ‘the novel hasn’t started yet’: no one, as far as I know, has died on stage.
The spread of coronavirus has been slower than Mandel’s fictional disease. The whole concept of ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are not encouraged in Mandel’s book, but they are necessary steps taken by civilisation to ensure survival. The spread is more sudden, and supermarkets quickly become battlegrounds. In contrast, in my reality, as frustrating as the empty shelves in Sainsbury’s are, I still feel safe leaving the house to buy my food.
I’m using Mandel’s novel as a way to process this pandemic. It’s the only thing I’ve ever ‘experienced’ that is somewhat similar to what we are seeing today – COVID-19 is, thankfully, on a smaller scale to the pandemic Mandel envisioned. As my denial finally begins to wane, and I realise more and more that the spread of the coronavirus isn’t a hoax that will be debunked on 1st April, I’m beginning to see Mandel’s fiction for the fiction it is. Parallels can certainly be drawn between her book and reality, but less and less am I searching for the dramatic opening to a novel to confirm that this is a dystopian reality. We have been living a dystopian reality for weeks.
In my life, though, I still feel as though the novel is yet to begin. It could start – a global pandemic is a good starting point – but the UK response to COVID-19 simply hasn’t been dramatic or decisive enough to warrant a punchy opening line. We are not in lock-down. Restaurants and cafes remain open. The streets are not deserted, though they are much quieter. As much as we’re encouraged to work from home and not engage in non-essential activity, the government’s refusal to officiate this means that business owners, scared to lose money, will not be closing until they do.
Then again, I’m also extraordinarily lucky to be able to say that nothing devastating has happened yet. It has. Just not to me.