By Douglas Preston
THE END OF OCTOBER
By Lawrence Wright
Academics have long quarreled about whether Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” should be considered a work of fiction or nonfiction — or a peculiar hybrid. Regardless, it is the granddaddy of the plague novel and remains its supreme example. What made “Plague Year” so compelling was Defoe’s meticulous research, which, combined with the journalistic tone he adopted, fooled his contemporary readers into thinking it was nonfiction — even though published over half a century after the plague’s “great visitation” in London.
Many pandemic novels have been written since, forming a vast body of literature. What makes Lawrence Wright’s “The End of October” exceptional is the same quality that elevated Defoe’s work: deep, thorough research. Wright is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Looming Tower” and other nonfiction books, and here he applies the magisterial force of his reporting skills into spinning a novel of pestilence, war and social collapse that, given the current pandemic, cuts exceedingly close to the bone.
Like “Plague Year,” much of the book not only reads like nonfiction, it is nonfiction: Wright weaves into the book accounts of historical epidemics, descriptions of Russian cyber- and biowarfare capabilities, the story of the 1803 attempt to save the New World from smallpox, and other curious nonfiction set pieces. In writing the novel, he interviewed scientists, epidemiologists, government officials and military officers. His understanding of world affairs, Middle East gossip, politics and governmental ineptitude is exceptional.
Despite the nonfiction scaffolding, this is a novel, and a good one. The main plotline centers on an epidemiologist, his family and his Odysseus-like return home from the biological battleground. Wright does not spare the reader. There are vivid and ghastly descriptions of hemorrhagic shock, social disorder and brutality. There is a scene of a child scraping a hole in the backyard to bury her mother, and another of the attempted rape of a child.
I received the manuscript to review in early February, before the coronavirus triggered a world panic. I am writing this review in New York City in March, under a state of emergency, as the National Guard is cordoning off parts of New Rochelle, and the city’s streets and subways are emptying of people. God only knows where the world will be when this review is published later this spring. It has been a surreal experience reading a novel about a fictional pandemic in the midst of a real one.
“The End of October” anticipated much of what is happening here and now. In the novel, the pilgrimage center of Mecca becomes a center of dispersal; in the real world, it was the pilgrimage center of Qom. In the novel, the American administration at first dismisses the outbreak as nothing more than a bad flu season. The president is unconcerned, then confused and then paralyzed, unable to act effectively “except to blame the opposing party for ignoring public health needs before he took office.” He appoints his clueless vice president to oversee the national response. Neither man understands the difference between a vaccine and treatment or has the slightest comprehension of biological science.
In one scene, an epidemiologist loses patience with the vice president and goes on a tear: “Now, if you’d been doing your job and providing us with the resources we asked for, maybe we wouldn’t be sitting here sucking our thumbs while people are suffering and the economy is going to hell and the graveyards are filling up.” At another point, a scientist urgently tries to explain to the administration what will happen: “There will be runs on the stores. Pharmaceuticals, groceries, batteries, gas, guns, you name it. Hospitals will be overwhelmed, not just with sick people but the worried as well. … As much as possible, we need to urge people to shelter in place.” He goes on to list what should be done: “borders closed, sports and entertainment facilities shuttered, nonemergency cases discharged from hospitals, schools closed, public meetings postponed.”
There are, however, significant differences between the real and fictional pandemics. In the novel, the virus is a form of influenza far more virulent than coronavirus, with a mortality rate of 45 percent. It eventually plunges the world into a horror that goes beyond anything that will happen (one hopes) with the current pandemic — complete social breakdown, governmental collapse and a raging world war conducted with bio- and cyberweapons. This is not a story of humanity helpless in the face of a mindless contagion; we ardently assist in our own demise. And yet, the story remains plausible. As Wright wrote in a recent letter to booksellers, “I am merely extending trends I see in the world to certain logical conclusions.” That, more than anything else, is what makes this novel so chilling.