Fictionality During Crisis?

Reading speculative literature during this pandemic can be an effective way to ground ourselves in reality.

By Alexa Perlmutter

Lately, I’ve had more time than usual to lose myself in the pages of a book. Other than Zoom class sessions in my living room and trips to the grocery store for which I don gloves and a mask, there isn’t much going on in my life, and I’ve started to power through book after book after book. Specifically, I’ve been reading those dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels that have been appearing on pandemic-themed reading lists over the past few weeks. Just this week, I’ve read Ling Ma’s Severance, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Omar El Akkad’s American War. And I’m still going strong, now midway through The Grace Year with a list of similar novels accumulating on a note in my phone. I’m thinking about rereading The Hunger Games series.

Though they certainly aren’t comforting, maybe these are the books that we should be reading right now. Several weeks ago, University of Chicago professor Agnes Callard argued that we are being drawn to these books because instinctively we want to be in the historical moment that we’re in; we want to feel the same pain and fear that the characters feel because these emotions correlate directly to our own pain and our own fears. What lies at the core of Callard’s argument is our desire for likeness, for a community (however fictional) with which we can relate and commiserate.

I argue, on the other hand, that we immerse ourselves in these stories not because of the ways they reflect our own, but because of the ways—despite the similarities—that they don’t.

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, a man and his young son make their way slowly toward the coast in search of a community. They travel across a cold, barren, and unpopulated landscape ravaged by god-knows-what, riddled with danger and depravity. This novel offers us a glimpse of a future wherein humanity has succumbed to a pandemic and the environment is unable to accommodate us.

One day this week, as I took my afternoon walk around my neighborhood in Washington D.C., I was completely transported onto McCarthy’s roads. Because there are fewer cars out right now, especially in residential areas, and because I want to minimize close contact with other pedestrians, I was walking in the middle of the street. There was no one in my field of vision, and, as I ascended a hill, I felt a bleakness I had never experienced before. It was as though I had walked for miles and had miles to go. Suddenly, every house I passed had either dead bodies inside, or worse, living people with guns who wouldn’t hesitate to shoot—and then eat—me. Or, maybe I was in Severance and each house would either be a dead-stock or a live-stock, wherein I might find any number of fevered victims.

Because I was born in 1998, I was too young to remember 9/11, an event similar but different to the COVID-19 pandemic, similar but different to what must have happened in the world of The Road. From what I’m told, my preschool let out early on the afternoon of September 11 and was closed for the next few days. My mom collected me from school, and we went home, extremely lucky that we and our extended family were safe. I recently asked my mom about what she would have done if what happened in New York City had happened in D.C. She said, “In all of the places we’ve lived, I’ve always made sure I can walk from our house to your school to my work—with a stroller—so I know that I’d be able to find you if something like that happened.” Her catastrophizing shocked me, and for the rest of the afternoon I peppered her with questions: “What would you have done if you couldn’t reach the school on foot?” “How would we have gotten to Grandma?” “Where would we go if something happened to our house?” “What if the banks shut down?” I noticed my own slippage from the conditional tense into the present.

But the image of my mom and I walking around a scorched-earth D.C. reminds me of The Road and all of the other books I’ve been reading precisely because, like these books, our perilous journey is a fiction. And it is the fictionality of these stories—my visceral knowledge that American War is not real because there has been no Second Civil War—that is truly at the root of my voracious dystopian reading. Literary critic Catherine Gallagher argues that the 19th-century reading public cherished the new novel in part because its characters—she calls them fictional nobodies—served as a constant reminder that they, the readers, were real. I’m so intrigued by my mom’s emergency planning because hearing her talk about it enables me to imagine the sordid alternatives that, significantly, never became my real life.

The confusing mixture of facts and fabrications that parades across our televisions each night during Trump’s press conferences has sufficiently blurred the line between truth and fiction such that I cherish the quiet moments alone with a story I know is untrue. Spending time with these worst-case-scenario imaginings allows me to approach this tough reality with a more level head and a renewed sense of gratitude for those who are working to prevent these dystopias from unfolding.

Of course, one of the joys of literature is losing oneself in the world of a book: As I walked through my deserted neighborhood, for a short minute I was not myself. I was in The Road, anxious and uncertain. There is no one left. How will I be okay? As I dive deeper into the apocalyptic alternatives to our world, though, what brings me joy is not the loss of self, but the re-inhabiting of myself once I close the book, the quiet smugness of being able to dodge pedestrians—People! Real, live people!—on the sidewalk and see green leaves on the trees and remind myself: No, not us—not yet.

Alexa Perlmutter is a third-year in the College and a Viewpoints Editor for The Maroon.