A prescient plague novel

Jeremy Gordin reviews "The End of October" by Lawrence Wright

The End of October by Lawrence Wright. Transworld, 2020, electronic edition.

In happier times, this novel might have been a minor blip on the reading public’s consciousness – maybe considered to be just another one of those “doomsday” potboilers, good for reading on the beach (remember the beach?) or in front of a fire or heater during winter evenings, with a snifter of cognac and a cigar close at hand (remember those?).

Or perhaps it might have joined the surprisingly long list of both fictional and non-fictional books about plagues and epidemics [1]. Wright is, after all, no lightweight. He’s a highly thought-of journalist who made a name for himself with the non-fictional The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), which won several major awards including the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

But here’s the thing about The End of October. Although the book was published on 28 April 2020, Wright began writing it in 2017, submitting his final draft in mid-2019. So?

So ...the novel virus at the centre of the book first emerges in east Asia. Soon it sweeps the globe, killing millions. In the US, businesses are closed, airports are deserted, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can’t produce a cure, let alone a vaccine. Meanwhile, the president, who has a tanning bed in a special Cosmetology Room in the White House (loc. 3242), seems baffled by what’s happening and calls in his devoutly religious vice-president to lead the nation’s ineffectual response to the pandemic. Sound familiar?

Not that Wright thinks he’s prescient. He’s explained that Ridley Scott, the filmmaker, suggested to him that he work on a scenario in which “civilization” had collapsed. So, Wright wrote a screenplay about “what could have cracked civilization”. One thing that seemed most likely to him “was a pandemic, something that’s built along the lines of the influenza of 1918, but in a modern era when the disease outpaces any attempt to pause it. And it was meant more as a cautionary tale for some future event, not something that would race ahead of the publication of [my] book”.

During the last seven days I read The End of October for about an hour every night just before sleeping. Well, let the prospective reader beware, it didn’t introduce much calm or peacefulness into my dream world. It gripped me more tightly than spandex on a 135 kg jogger, several of whom have emerged in recent days in my suburb, making use, I assume, of the 6-9am exercise window.

Until about three months ago, I guess that, like most people, I had scant interest in pandemics, epidemiology, lockdowns, viruses, RNA, DNA and all the rest of the stuff that filling our brains. Luckily, Wright has done all the research any reader might desire – indefatigable research being one of the skills for which he is apparently renowned.

As he remarked recently to David Remnick of the New Yorker, “What was most affecting to me were the interviews that I had. I went to the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda. I talked to immunologists at Pfizer. And I went to Fort Detrick, in Maryland, where a lot of the biowarfare research had been done” [2].

But of course, all the epidemiological history is merely background. The main protagonist is Dr Henry Parsons, an American virologist working at the CDC, who’s trying to flatten the curve of his past as well as help find a vaccine for this book’s “Kongoli virus”. I won’t give away what Parsons’ past is. But he is something of a strange coot (birds of all sorts play a role in this book), as evidenced by his relationships with his wife and children, and his attitude to religion. We learn about the latter when he gets stuck in Saudi Arabia – the Kongoli virus has reached Mecca where three million people making the hajj must be locked down and where Parsons’ host and friend is the minister of health, Prince Majid, a scientist but a believer.

That last sentence – in which very few of the people and plot strands in this book are mentioned – will demonstrate, if only a little, why I think of this book as being a very bulky portmanteau.

Wright, 72, has a great (and, as it turned out) prescient story and a clever plot, but seems to have loaded it with every experience and thought that he’s ever had in his life, not to mention material he’s worked on in his previous non-fiction books, covering conflict in the Middle East, religious fanaticism, and the “war on terror”.

I guess – and guess is all I can do – that Wright thought or maybe was advised that to turn his “story” or scenario, which was what it started life as (for Scott) into a novel, he needed to augment it, to pad it out by having a backstory for each character and for each experience Parsons has.

This is a pity because, for example, his family’s going camping for a week, ostensibly to teach them self-reliance and fortitude and which ends with them chasing away two hungry Grizzly bears, is fun – but it wasn’t clear to me what it had to do with the rest of the book. Nor did the emotional make-up of his two children seem relevant; they play very little part in the plot, except for their horrible experiences in a shattered America.

Well, could well be that I’m wrong; maybe it’s those very experiences of his children that do matter. For this is a frightening and shocking book – from the Indonesian camp, where young gays have been interned and where the virus seems to have started, and where we stare into chest cavities and at bodies turned blue by cyanosis, to an American city transformed into a lawless hellhole in which children must bury a parent in the garden.

As I write this, Covid-19 infections in most west European countries seem to have stabilized and lockdowns are being eased. Let’s be thankful that Wright’s worst prognostications, in this absorbing if over-written novel, haven’t been realised. Let’s hope too that nothing like them happens in South Africa or anywhere else – because, as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it's over.” He also said, come to think of it, “It's déjà vu all over again.”


[1] I say a “surprisingly” long list because a couple of months ago, before the number of Covid-19 deaths starting climbing, there were a few articles about what people could read at home while self-isolating. These generally included mainly fictional items such as The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (circa 1349-52); the plague sections of Samuel Pepys’s famous diary (1660-69);  A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) by Daniel Defoe, probably one of the world’s first journalists; Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann; Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) by Katherine Anne Porter; and The Plague by Albert Camus (1947). But since then the list has grown exponentially and now includes many non-fiction studies, a (very) few of which are: The Black Death (1969) by Philip Ziegler; A Distant Mirror (1978) by Barbara W Tuchman; Faith, Reason and the Plague (1981) by Carlo Cipolla; The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2004) by John M. Barry; and Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction (2016) by Christian W. McMillen.

[2] Talking of Fort Detrick, if readers will pardon the digression, a book one should not miss is Poisoner in ChiefSidney Gottlieb and the CIA search for mind control by Stephen Kinzer. Henry Holt and Co, 2019.