A Virus Upends the World in a Sweeping New Novel

From The New York Times:

The sweeping, authoritative and genuinely intelligent thriller — the sort of novel in which the author employs a bulldozer and a scalpel at the same time — is a rare specimen. Lawrence Wright’s second novel, “The End of October,” is one of these. The fact that it’s about the world in shock and ruin because of a virus similar to Covid-19 makes it read as if it’s been shot out of a cannon.

Wright is a Texas-based staff writer for The New Yorker. He’s primarily known as the author of nonfiction books such as “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, and “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.” These are serious, well-reported and supple works in which he has command of multiple moving parts.

. . . .

What he offers in compensation is a great deal of learning about viruses and their attendant political and social horrors; learning that he injects into a maniacal page-turner. He offers the joy of competence — his own as a writer, and the scientific and moral competence of many of the characters he’s invented. At a moment when competence and verity are in short supply at the top, and when our best scientists cannot share their nomenclature and expertise, this is no small consolation, even while reading about humanity coming to a boil.

The protagonist is an American microbiologist named Henry Parsons. This is the sort of novel you can’t help but cast in your head as you skim along, and I imagine Henry as a 40-something Richard Dreyfuss or Bob Balaban.

. . . .

Microbiologists, in Wright’s telling, are like wolves seeking scents of danger in the wind. The World Health Organization enlists Henry to travel to an internment camp in Indonesia where 47 people have died gruesome deaths from an acute hemorrhagic fever.

Henry thinks the contagion may have been contained, but his own driver has unwittingly been infected and then makes the pilgrimage to Mecca for the annual Hajj. At Mecca, he moves among nearly three million people, and a pandemic explodes. An attempt is made, with the use of soldiers and barbed wire, to keep the faithful locked inside, as if they were horses in a burning barn. The crowds ultimately escape; soldiers don’t have the heart to mow down fellow Muslims.

The novel virus in “The End of October,” known as the Kongoli influenza, is deadlier than Covid-19. Millions die in America, and the world sheds 7 percent of its population. But reading this book is, for a long while, like reading about our current moment: schools close, the stock market crashes, sports come to a halt, airports shut, millions are thrown out of work. Wright even posits a Mike Pence-like vice president leading the failed pandemic response. The venal and hapless president in this book owns a tanning bed. During one of his speeches, blood begins to leak from his eyes.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

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