:: Article

Pandemic Literature

By Tara McEvoy.

The world looks different than it did last week. Maybe that’s true every week, but truer more so now, it being in the grip of a pandemic. Flights cancelled, borders shut, whole countries on lockdown. Unprecedented. Europe now the global epicentre, the number of cases here in the north of Ireland jumping every day. The first reported cases in Wuhan province, China, just a few months ago, news trickling out slowly at first, before it became the only story. A new lexicon: ‘immunocompromised’, ‘social distance’, ‘self-isolate’, ‘flatten the curve’. And so we do. And so, if we can, we buy some tinned goods, some bread to freeze, whatever is left in the shops as their shelves begin to empty, and those of us with a place to go go there and come back out as little as we can. A strange kind of purgatory.

But even inside life goes on, if it can, as it must, and with it a first-year literature course in a Belfast university, and with that, this week’s reading: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I first read the book as a shy eighteen-year-old, taking classes in the same building where I now get to deliver them, as part of the same module I now get to teach on as a PhD student. Or, it seems more plausible to say that I skimmed it. It’s hard to say what kind of impression it made. Details of the plot didn’t stick with me, but I remember being struck by just how bleak McCarthy’s dystopia was. Unrelentingly grey. A man and his son struggling to survive. A society eating itself, danger at every turn. A globe ravaged by plague? War? Environmental collapse? We don’t know. It hardly seems to matter. In truth, I think I dismissed The Road. A sci-fi novel, but one with pretensions. Macho. Unrealistic. Reactionary. Hysterical, even.

Between then and now, set texts have come and gone. A few years ago, tutoring on this survey fiction module was my first ever teaching assignment, and The Road had been joined on the module by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Joyce Carol Oates’ Rape: A Love Story; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. This year, by Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’; George Saunders’ ‘Exhortation’; Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Whatever else changes, The Road is still here: transporting me back to my first, shaky attempts to lead a classroom discussion; back further to 2012, to myself at eighteen, to the room where I first read it: my room in halls with its navy carpet and single bed, a poster of Andy Warhol blue-tacked to the wall. The book, despite all its grimness — maybe because of all its grimness — a kind of anchor.

In the weeks before this year’s tutorial on The Road is scheduled to take place, the book has begun to re-infiltrate the zeitgeist. Think-pieces on ‘pandemic literature’ proliferate as the virus sweeps through China, Korea, the United States. Listicles are compiled: The New York Times publishes ‘Your Quarantine Reader’; NPR streams the segment ‘What fictional pandemics can teach us about real world survival’; The Evening Standard recommends ‘Books to read to get you through the Coronavirus pandemic’. Writing for The Telegraph, Antonello Guerrera remarks that his native Italy, one of the countries hardest hit, has assumed the contours of a ‘wasteland’, that the streets of il Bel Paese look like the setting of McCarthy’s novel. An article in The Australian warns readers, ‘If we think of Albert Camus’s The Plague as about the here and now, then Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the possible future.’

I re-read the novel in the house I’ve been staying in, the house that was my grandparents’, in the east of the city; a two-up two-down terraced house in the shadow of the shipyards. The sky is a light grey over the slate roofs of the row of houses opposite. It could be that it is eerily still on the street outside, or perhaps the level of footfall is normal for a Monday afternoon in March. I wouldn’t know. Most weekdays since I moved in, I’ve taken my bike to campus in the morning, returned to the house in the late evening. I am not in the habit of staying in, not in the habit of observing the activity of this street. Those who pass by the house are, for the most part, children, unsupervised, zooming along on scooters, running, giggling. Two small boys kick a football back and forth, leisurely, unconcerned with the prospect of cars disrupting their game. At noon, the owner of the café across the street takes the bins out. The café is empty. Gulls chatter. I look out at the telephone wires and the television satellite dishes and the chimney pots, the plastic flower arrangement that hangs from a hook on a neighbour’s windowsill and sways a little in the breeze. Inside, a bottle of bleach spray stands sentry. In the near distance, the occasional sound of planes landing, or taking off, it’s hard to tell, from City Airport. Closer again, perhaps about a street away, the tinny cadences of an ice-cream van jingle, as the van sails calmly on. Otherwise, it is still.

Since I moved in here, eight months ago, I’ve felt like I’m haunting the house. My grandparents lived here for over fifty years, moved in when they married, a new home in the district where they’d each grown up, just a few streets apart. My mother and her siblings were raised here, three girls and two boys in two rooms. Myself, my brother, and my cousins spent a good deal of our childhood here, too — days that merge, in my memory, into one long summer afternoon: lying on the carpet in the parlour, playing video games, reading East of Eden, watching my grandmother make stew in the kitchen, browning the beef and adding flour, the sting of hot pavement on our bare feet on the walk to the corner shop. All of it somehow exotic, urban, a thrilling departure from our home in a countryside hamlet. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not. My grandfather passed away in 2015, my grandmother just a few months ago, at the start of the year, but they are everywhere in this house: in the rosary beads I find down the side of the armchair; in the photo that hangs on the parlour wall, both of them smiling on their golden wedding anniversary, best bib and tucker; in the patchwork floor that my grandfather laid in the kitchen. He’d found hunks of marble, my uncle told me recently, in a skip on a building site he was working on, on the Malone Road — the other side of town — and at clocking-off time had begun lugging them home in his backpack, one a day, day after day, for weeks. I try to live quietly amongst these remnants of their life together.

In an unpacked box of my books, I find my tattered copy of The Road. It’s a film tie-in version, Viggo Mortensen in a parka on the cover, clutching the hand of his young son, the two setting out against the backdrop of a blazing horizon. Maybe, I think, I’ll watch the film when I finish re-reading the book. I’ve got time. A pencilled price on the first page (£2) suggests I picked it up in a second-hand bookstore somewhere. Judging by the handwriting, probably Bookfinders Café, University Road, now shuttered. Optimistically, I’m expecting two sets of notes in the margins of the book: one from the first time I read it, one from the first time I taught it, maybe in a different colour of pen, the handwriting altered by age. A progression of thought, a diary of my responses, something one might even be compelled to call a palimpsest. No such luck. The only contact marks the book bears are a few dog ears, although I can’t tell if these signpost important pages, or just pages I meant to come back to later. I’ve underlined some passages in black ink, circled few words — ‘Godless’, ‘formless’, ‘cairns’ — and written even fewer — ‘ambiguous’ on page fifty-seven, ‘“literary”’ underneath the final paragraph. No epiphanies here, then.

A pre-recorded lecture uploaded to the module’s online resources folder sheds more light on the novel. A staff member in the department speaks over slides, opening by discussing the strange new context for our reading, how our experience of reading texts is always historically contingent. Returning to the book, I’m surprised by elements of it I hadn’t paid attention to before, back when it was all I could do to make it through. Its oddly sentimental depiction of the boy, starving yet insistent upon offering his father his own food. But its cynicism, too, and its implicit conservatism — its nostalgia for a vanished America, a vanished version of society, the twentieth century. Not merely pessimism, but fatalism. A disaster without explanation, a future without hope.

In breaks from reading McCarthy, reading about McCarthy, I cook with whatever is in the cupboard: spaghetti, passata, garlic, capers. I make coffee. I sleep, and try not to sleep in. I stream trashy television shows and discuss them with friends on WhatsApp. I follow YouTube yoga tutorials by a chirpy American woman. I try to write my thesis, with limited success. I read other books. Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor; Eula Biss’s On Immunity. I write this essay. I call home. I call elderly relatives, who assure me they have enough groceries to last a few weeks. I assure them I won’t visit. I worry about what to do, and ultimately do nothing. I wait for an email from the university cinema where I work at the weekend, confirmation that it will close, for it is still open; catering to the five or six people who now arrive for screenings. I wait for an email about a full university closure, an email that seems like it might never come.

I just keep going. I knew this was coming.
You knew it was coming?
Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.
Did you try to get ready for it?
What would you do?
I don’t know

I have, by this point, already deleted the Twitter app from my phone — the canker, as Didion might say, already in the rose. That helps, a little, and now my frantic energy has been replaced with a low-level dread, the kind that finds you daily as you rouse from sleep. When I do log back in, sporadically, I see different versions of my experience replicated across the globe. People in their houses, bored and anxious. Making memes and short films and writing poems, baking sourdough and drinking cans, painting their walls, shaving their heads, playing with their kids, complaining about having to play with their kids. There are those whose experience is much worse: those separated from their loved ones by oceans or by occupations, those grieving, those forced into work in shops and hospitals each day. And this merely the tip of the iceberg; these merely the people on social media. The news is too depressing to bear. A post on the LRB’s Instagram page announces that coronavirus could mark the worst disaster in human history in terms of total lives lost. The front cover of the Daily Mail is tweeted and retweeted, quote-tweeted, thousands of times: a photo of Boris Johnson and the headline Many Loved Ones Will Die. Going viral. On the Sunday Telegraph’s website, the U.K. Health Secretary publishes an op-ed on how to combat the virus. The op-ed is behind a paywall. The cruelty is astonishing, winding. Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. I log back out. I no longer turn on the TV downstairs, no longer play the radio.

With a remarkable speed, going for a walk will come to seem like both a luxury and a risk, but for now I try to go outside each day, leaving the gate open when I return home so I don’t have to open it the day after. I stop touching the buttons for traffic lights, waiting till the green man appears of his own accord, or until there’s just a lull in the traffic — and anyway, it’s not as if the roads are busy at the minute. A street; a thoroughfare; an estate; a junction, all, for the most part, empty; then a quick swerve onto the Lagan walkway, a clear path to the centre of town or, crossing just before Central Station, to the Ormeau Road, up to Botanic or Ormeau Park. Mostly I take the same route: head towards town, cross over at Queen’s Bridge. Down past the Waterfront, over the Lagan Viaduct and back in the direction of the house, but I miss the turn off and keep going, over the Albert Bridge now and down past the Gasworks, the new £30 million building of some insurance company that’s lain empty this past week, towards the also-empty Shaftesbury Recreation Centre and the temporarily closed play park. I stop before I hit the main road, turning and walking back until the bright yellow shipyard cranes emerge. One afternoon I take a different route, go to see my friend in the city centre when he clocks off from the non-essential job he’s being forced to work. We wave a hello from a few metres off, walk to the front of the City Hall where we can sit on a bench, not wanting to go to a coffee shop, and marvel at how quiet it’s getting. On parting, we bump elbows instead of hugging, laugh at the affectation. All that has changed, all that is about to change. He heads south, and I head east, home towards a new ritual of taking off all outerwear at the door, washing my hands on re-entering the house.

Before The Road, The Waste Land. I am due to teach it as part of a class on poetry and the city, two days after the quietest St Patrick’s Day in living memory. I search for it on the POETRY website and try to do the kind of close reading I normally would to prepare for class, to base some questions on. Today, though, it’s hard to get beyond the affective resonances of some of Eliot’s lines, hard not to read everything through a frightening new lens. ‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad.’ ‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?’ Well, quite. Demented Eliot and his demented London. A poem, a mind, a city, in tatters. One world war ended and another to come, and poor, neurotic Eliot poring over Dante, Spenser, Baudelaire, scribbling away. I’ve always found it exhilarating, this vision, even if it’s been drained of some of its potency over the years. Today, in light of the circumstances, it’s regained its full terrific power. The beauty and the frailty of the human engine being laid bare over and over again, the frailty of everything revealed at last, in the street beyond the desk, in the city beyond the street.

Lectures are cancelled, but tutorials will still go ahead, an email at the beginning of the week announces. I think about the irony of asking students, now, to attend a class on The Road in person — to risk exposure. The first time I taught it, I’d asked my class: how would you act, in their situation? What does this book teach us about how you can value your family, your community? I suppose we no longer need to speculate. Later in the week, face-to-face tutorials are cancelled, too. The cinema is closing. The university is closing. All remaining classes will be conducted online. A new approach to take, quickly, and an abrupt end to the semester as we had known it. I read Dan Chiasson’s tender, bittersweet New Yorker essay on the closure of college campuses in America:

Greeting the spring often means tallying losses. If you have a house and a little yard, as I do, you take a look at the roof and see how it’s fared, see what’s up with the trees, and see if the patio table can withstand another summer. If spring means the end of something — as it does for college students, and especially for seniors—the losses are more painful, but somehow the orderly ceremonies of the term can compensate. For that stately process to be undermined by a panic is obscene; for the panic to be over a virus—a form of life with only its own spring-like emergence and thriving in mind — seems especially frightening.

Chiasson wonders what might be cut short, for students, by the pandemic: the burgeoning love of a subject maybe, a new romantic relationship. He’s talking about a kind of universal college experience, but in my mind’s eye I see Queen’s: the Gothic splendour of the Lanyon Building and its sprawling lawn, the houses of University Square, a street that I have long privately suspected to be my favourite in the city. I think of those perfect days in September: a fresh notebook and the last heat of the summer, the leaves just on the turn. I think of the cramped little room at the back of House Four where I took my first undergraduate poetry course and cried, actually cried, into a copy of Geoffrey Hill’s Selected Poems; the faces of my classmates, our plastic chairs huddled together into a circle. I think of my own students, milling around in the quad before class, chatting in the hallways of the Main Site Tower, becoming friends, maybe. And I think of University Square the weekend past, as I travelled to and from work at the film theatre: desolate, emptied of life.

As the days go by, I notice new details of a house as familiar to me as my family members. The storage space under the stairs where my grandfather’s plastering equipment is, the perfect finish on the egg and dart cornicing he made his own mould for, the cursive inscriptions underneath the oil painting prints that hang in the parlour, Francis Wheatley’s ‘Cries of London’. Some days in, I climb the steep stairs to the little attic that I slept in as a child, for a change of scene. My grandparents’ stuff is up here, and I haven’t been in this room since they were here, too, Countdown or Coronation Street blaring on the TV downstairs. Their clothes, books, records, all in bags or boxes, but I don’t open them, just find a space on the floor to sink down and look out the window for a bit: a new perspective on the old world outside. Row after row of red brick terraces, just the same as this one, and beyond them the dome of the Mount Conference Centre, the spire of McQuiston Memorial Presbyterian Church on the Castlereagh Road, farther away still the outline of a couple of gantries, the city making money on a weather-mangled Tuesday. I listen to a podcast about the effect of the Spanish influenza on the American film industry on my phone, scroll through the Museums N.I. catalogue of A.R. Hogg photos — Belfast in the first half of the twentieth century — lingering over his picture houses: Majestic Cinema on the Lisburn Road, Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road, the Picturedrome on the Mountpottinger Road, the Ritz on Fisherwick Place. An unexpected glamour in the interior shots: art deco furniture and mosaic tiling, velvet curtains and palm trees. The places my grandparents might have gone on a Friday night before the bills, before the children, before all those places were shut down.

Days pass. They seem simultaneously shorter and longer than usual. The sun rises in spite of everything. I could be twelve, on school holidays and staying with my grandparents, a whole season stretching out before me, boundless. I could be eighteen, lying on my bed with a pen in my mouth, trying to think of clever things to say about The Road. But I am twenty-six, wondering how to word a group email so that it will strike a reassuring tone, making notes that I might, someday, be able to refer back to in the margins of a novel, video-calling friends to test the online conferencing software we’ll need to use for tutorials. The recycling bins fill with teabags, cartons of juice, soup tins. Something like a rhythm emerging. No conditions to which man cannot grow accustomed. The most time I’ve spent in the house in my adult life, and not just any house, not one in a succession of grotty student flats, damp bubbling the wallpaper, but this house where part of my raising was done.

The class on The Waste Land comes and goes. I spend the night before it wandering around in pyjamas with my webcam on my face, trying to find a good spot, eventually settling on using a desk upstairs before deciding to turn the camera off anyway. The following morning a few students from the larger group log in, typing responses in a chat window as my disembodied voice sounds over a PowerPoint presentation, the whole tutorial faintly absurd. We speak about the flâneur, Baudelaire’s wandering man, setting up house in the heart of the multitude, amidst the ebb and flow of the movement, and the idea seems ridiculously antiquated, a relic of the world we had known until recently. I remember that I can sometimes hear my neighbours’ television through the wall when I’m lying in bed, and wonder if they can hear me now, asking questions about The Waste Land to an empty room, receiving no verbal reply, asking more questions.

We speak about the nightmarish imagery: lilacs out of the dead land, a heap of broken images, fear in a handful of dust. About World War One, the Industrial Revolution, modernism. Before long it is time to end the class, a lump in my throat, to thank everyone who’s joined in for their cooperation in using the new technology, for all our discussions in class up until now. It’s only when I’ve logged off that I wonder about a context for the poem that we didn’t discuss: the Spanish flu. The virus and the poem, three years apart. I’d never thought of the connection. Idly, I scroll through JSTOR, find a chapter on The Waste Land in a book by Elizabeth Outka called Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. The miasmic residue of the pandemic experience, it argues, infuses every part of the poem, in ways we have been missing all along. Outka’s autopsy revealing the virus spread through the bronchioles of the poem. Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit. A poem burning with fever. Burning burning burning burning burning / O Lord thou pluckest me out. This fresh new pandemic sending us back towards a residue analysis. The cruellest month looming.

Further restrictions are applied. Pubs and restaurants, not that many had been going to them, are closed, people are warned against undertaking any non-essential travel. No-one knows when the order for a full lockdown will come, but most agree that it cannot be far off. On the eve of Mother’s Day, the Prime Minister cautions adult citizens against visiting their parents, their mothers. This time the best thing is to ring her, video call her, Skype her, but to avoid any unnecessary physical contact or proximity. I stay in Belfast, my Mother an hour away. The first time since I moved out, nearly a decade ago, that I haven’t gone home. She wonders if I wouldn’t want to come back, before any lockdown is called for. We both watch the 1994 film version of Little Women at 3.10pm on Sony Movies, messaging each other throughout so I can make fun of Christian Bale’s goatee, so she can explain to me who Gabriel Byrne is. The following day lockdown becomes a reality. The Prime Minister has been holding daily 5pm briefings on the virus, but Monday’s is cancelled, replaced by a Cobra meeting. An 8.30pm ministerial broadcast on the BBC. I open an iPlayer tab on my laptop, wait for it to start. As soon as it does, you can tell it’s serious. Until now, briefings have been conducted before select members of the press, Johnson standing at a podium, flanked by advisers. This evening’s broadcast is different. A close-up shot of the PM, sitting at a desk, a tastefully upholstered sofa and a fireplace in the background, a gargantuan Union flag to his left. War cabinet style. From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction. You must stay at home. It feels at once surreal and inevitable. Welcome to the desert of the real.

It continues. If you don’t follow the rules, the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. In time there will be much to parse in these remarks. Simmering concerns about the longevity of the legislation and its capacity to cripple collective organisation, demonstration; about the scope of the suite of laws that have just been rushed through; the copper-fastened powers of the police. But in this instant, I am not thinking about any of that. My first reaction is one of panic. What to do, where to go, who to call. When the time comes, there will be no time. In essence nothing has changed. I will continue to do what I have been doing: staying indoors, leaving only occasionally for air, for Vitamin D, for the small moment of solidarity that comes each time I pass someone on the pavement and we each shuffle to give each other as wide a berth as possible, a little smile of disbelief to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation, our thanks. The change will be minimal, and yet this isn’t how it feels. It feels like a moment no one who has lived through it will forget. I will always remember where I was when this happened, I think, and I will always remember where I stayed. The announcement is followed by a news special which plays on as I pace around the room, keeps playing as I call my brother, my parents, as we deliberate about what to do, and realise we should each stay where we are. It is already too late. We are only playing catch-up.

A fitful sleep. A morning with my phone on silent, avoiding the news. A tutorial on The Road, this afternoon. A few weeks ago this would have been an inauspicious event, just another hour in the week, wedged between a trip to the Graduate School or the Seamus Heaney Centre; a session at the gym; a shift in work; a coffee on Botanic Avenue; a night in Lavery’s. The curious news, the quaint concerns. A flurry of handouts and lesson plans and attendance registers, another text ticked off this year’s reading list — onto the next. Today it’s a milestone: the end of term, the last class I’ll have with this group — now, with any luck, isolating too, with flatmates or families, each of them waiting it out. A point of contact with the outside world, this class I’ve just been getting to know, who’ve just been getting to know each other. The books they’re yet to read, the discussions they’re yet to have, waiting for them at the other side of all this, whenever that might be, however that might look. Today, though, it’s just me, them, and The Road. We speak about the collapse of the economy, the relics of consumerism that litter the text. About religion and its utility, what ethics might be retained in a society destroyed. And about the dominant theme of the course: what literature has to do with any of this; why it matters, if it matters. An hour that goes too quickly, the anti-climax of logging out of a virtual meeting, and their first year at university is over.

Two nights later and I’m out for a walk, the first in four days. The government is now permitting people one form of outdoor exercise per day, but I’ve been trying to limit even these excursions as much as possible. Today I left the house at around 7pm, after a long day of looking at a brilliant, blue sky through a windowpane, hoping to catch the last of the sun. The usual route: an uneven figure of eight with the house in the middle, towards city centre, down along the river, towards the Ormeau Road, taking the same path back. The first signs of spring are emerging, flowers growing along the embankment, the chill disappearing from the air. When I see a woman who can’t be much older than me, her hair in a bun, pushing a pram along the Viaduct, a toddler following along behind her, I realise that they’re the first people I’ve seen in days. The toddler stumbles forward in my direction and the woman beckons her closer, offering a shrug of apology.

By the time I’m nearly home the sun has sunk into the hills behind the Lagan, the temperature has dropped. I turn onto the Albert Bridge, off the river walkway, and to my left is a recently erected traffic message board, an L.E.D light sign glowing orange in the darkness: SAVE LIVES. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. I cross the road without having to hit the button. A few minutes before 8pm on a Thursday night on one of the busiest roads in the city, and not a car around. The tableau reminds me not of The Road but of another tale of apocalypse, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and a scene that’s become a meme of late, Cillian Murphy’s character wandering across a deserted, rubbish-strewn Westminster Bridge in surgical scrubs. I’ve been listening to a Spotify playlist through my headphones, but as I hit the halfway point of the bridge, I hear a noise somewhere I can’t place, pull the headphones out. The sound is swelling. Applause. When I look up, out across the river and to the apartment blocks on either side of it, I see that hundreds of people have come out onto their balconies, and they’re clapping, cheering. I think of a news article I saw earlier, remember why. The whole city is on balconies and doorsteps, clapping for NHS workers. The sound carries along the river, echoing off the banks, and somewhere in the city centre someone has started to let off fireworks, rising, one after the other, exploding each by each with a bang, a burst of colour against the night sky. I stand on the bridge alone and start to cry.

The Road ends on a note of ambiguity, the father dead, the boy taken under the wing of a family of fellow travellers. He cried for a long time. Then he rose and turned and walked back out onto the road. He has no reason to trust them, but he does, setting out in search of more ‘good guys’ like himself and his father, continuing on along his path. To be good is to persist, even if that persistence doesn’t yield anything, even if he doesn’t end up anywhere better. He just keeps going. It’s all he can do. The journey must be endured, even if the destination is unclear. It’s all that anyone can do. Thole what comes, hug our little destinies. Help however we can in the meantime, and dream of a summer when the virus recedes and with it the fear, when we might find a beer garden and spend the afternoon in it with our friends, have a barbeque in the park, hug our parents again. A few days ago a pencil drawing was blue-tacked to the living room window of the house opposite this one, facing out into the street. A rainbow on yellow card, and below it, in child’s handwriting, the words Stay home. Save lives. A beacon in a maze of red brick and tarmac, where little separates one day from the next, morning from evening. Dogs bark in the alleys and smoke rises from chimneys. The streetlamps blink on, and off again. Sometimes, the strains of music from a sound system carry through an open front door. And anyone who passes might take heart in the picture that hangs in that living room window, waiting for the day when it can be taken down.

—March 26th, 2020



Tara McEvoy recently graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a PhD in English Literature. She co-founded and edits The Tangerine, a Belfast-based magazine of new writing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 28th, 2021.