Art Anticipates Life

The End of October BY Lawrence Wright. New York: Knopf. 400 pages. $27.

The cover of The End of October

Aside from being in poor taste, exchanging high-fives is no doubt a clumsy business on Zoom, which is presumably how Alfred A. Knopf’s marketing team does its conferring these days. Even so, they must have been agog when The End of October ($28), journalist Lawrence Wright’s alternately sober-minded and gaudy new thriller about a devastating global pandemic, got transformed into the season’s most sensational publishing event by a genuine pandemic’s eruption. Apparently, the publication date did get moved up—Christ, what if they find a vaccine first?—but only by a couple of weeks. Now that the no-longer-so-novel coronavirus has skewed all of our lives six ways to crazy, is America ready to escape into Coronavirus: The Novel?

Although Wright has tried his hand at imaginative writing before, he’s far better known for his nonfiction—above all The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Next came 2013’s Going Clear, an investigation of Scientology’s tactics, allure, and raison d’être that L. Ron Hubbard’s followers will never forgive Wright for. In key ways, his methodology here wasn’t altogether different. Well before he or we knew the future was in one of those tetchy moods that makes tomorrow impulsively decide that it would rather be today, he did exhaustive research and interviewed a plethora of scientific and national security experts to make his worst-case scenario plausible.

His diligence shows in the dialogue’s chunks of erudite jabber explaining at length how viruses work. Along with the potted history lessons bringing readers up to speed on, variously, the 1918 influenza epidemic, vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner, and superpower biological-warfare research during the Cold War, some of this material would be a serious drag on the narrative’s momentum if Wright didn’t have an audience newly eager for every informational nugget he’s assembled. At the same time, The End of October had its genesis as a screenplay commissioned by director Ridley Scott, and the author’s movie-minded purposes show too.

Wright’s hero—or his Dr. Anthony Fauci stand-in, if you like—is CDC infectious-diseases honcho Henry Parsons, a veteran epidemiologist with “a professional habit of seeing pathology wherever he turned,” whose detective work helped crack the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, among other feats of diagnostic derring-do. What his admirers don’t know is that he once worked on the dark side of viral research, creating diseases in the US government’s biological-weapons lab at (the very real) Fort Detrick, Maryland—a program officially discontinued in 1969 but, per Wright, revived after 9/11. Henry’s body is also warped by rickets, an affliction linked to his childhood’s best-kept secret: his idealistic parents’ involvement with one of the ghastlier cult movements of the 1970s.

He’s attending a health conference in Geneva when somebody’s glib report on dozens of peculiar fatalities in a refugee camp in Indonesia triggers his inner alarm bell. Next stop: Jakarta, where the Indonesian government does its best to thwart his curiosity. But he gets into the camp, which is actually a detention center for gay men, and steps into an abattoir—a tent housing a recently sent Doctors Without Borders team, all of whom are horribly dead. While perhaps a bit too reminiscent of a Star Trek: TOS episode that kicks off when Kirk, Spock, and Bones McCoy come across a Federation outpost that’s been mysteriously wiped out, this discovery certainly starts things off with a bang.

The camp’s name—Kongoli, which even sounds a little like “coronavirus”—becomes the disease’s name as well. Exposed himself after performing a grisly autopsy without adequate protective equipment, Henry emerges from his quarantine feeling confident that the virus’s spread has been at least temporarily checked by the international medical cavalry his urgent eyewitness report has summoned to the scene. But by then, the Muslim cabbie who took him there has blithely flown to Mecca to perform the hajj, cheek by jowl with three million other believers from all over the world. Since we know he’s infected, even though he doesn’t, the poor dude’s excitement at being among the lucky pilgrims who manage to kiss the sacred stone embedded in the Kaaba—the Great Mosque’s holiest structure—is one of the book’s most ingeniously managed chills.

Henry is soon in Saudi Arabia himself, where he’s lucky to have an influential ally in coping with what’s now a monster health crisis. His old friend Prince Majid is not only a member of the Saudi royal family, but a doctor—his country’s Minister of Health, in fact—and a highly fluent tutor when it comes to instructing Wright’s non-Muslim readers in Islamic practices and taboos. The idea of sending in the Saudi army to seal off the holy city appalls the king’s advisers—that is, his other relatives—but Wright couldn’t have guessed that China’s lockdown of Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus would make this plot device seem not only prescient but, if anything, less drastic than the reality. (Incidentally, it’s also a bit jarring that his portrait of the House of Saud is essentially benign; when the king gives Majid his assent, Henry even reflects that “sometimes it was better when only one voice matters after all.”)

Andres Serrano, Thomas Buda, Hazmat Chemical Biological Weapons Reponse Team (America), 2002, Cibachrome, 44 × 37". © Andres Serrano, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels
Andres Serrano, Thomas Buda, Hazmat Chemical Biological Weapons Reponse Team (America), 2002, Cibachrome, 44 × 37". © Andres Serrano, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, we’ve already been introduced to Henry’s national security counterpart: Matilda “Tildy” Nichinsky, an intelligence maven with “a singular talent for being underestimated” who’s become deputy secretary for homeland security “without anyone really noticing.” Convinced that the Deputies Committee she chairs has bigger fish to fry, from Vladimir Putin’s fingers in everything to the war Saudi Arabia and Iran have been steadily ramping up to before Kongoli’s outbreak, she’s initially impatient with the Health and Human Services rep’s briefings on the pandemic. Then the health crisis and Tildy’s chronic bugaboos—chiefly, Putin himself, whom she knew, loathed, and feared as a young Foreign Service Officer in Saint Petersburg—begin to converge, with the specter of biological warfare fusing them all.

Unlike Putin, the novel’s American president and his vice president are kept nameless. But POTUS is clearly Trump—in one of Wright’s exceedingly rare jokes, this White House includes a “Cosmetology Room,” complete with tanning bed—and his veep is no less obviously Mike Pence. That’s why it’s disconcerting when the Trump figure is sidelined early and Pence’s stand-in takes over, suiting Tildy Nichinsky just fine. Not only does he share her suspicions of Russia’s malignity, but he’s more prepared to act decisively than you-know-who.

“But it hasn’t worked out that way at all,” the reader wants to protest. We can’t help being woefully aware of the actual Trump’s stupefying shenanigans in the era of COVID-19 and the self-serving frenzy they’ve added to our government’s botched response. At one level, we know the protest is nonsensical; The End of October is a novel, after all, derived from informed conjecture rather than the nightly news. But it’s also an unavoidable reaction, because we’re in the peculiar position of being able to compare Wright’s invented hypotheses to our everyday—and still ongoing, with no conclusion in sight—experience of the social and political upheavals a pandemic can wreak.

As a result, we go from turning pages in the witless but breathless expectation that he can tell us what our world will look like next month or next year to feeling irritated when the narrative veers onto doomsday turf that seems wildly at variance (so far!) with what we’re actually going through. Whenever his educated guesswork jars with the newly observable truth outside our window, it’s as if we were reading Morgan Robertson’s The Wreck of the Titan—the 1898 novella that famously predicted the Titanic’s sinking—while aboard the real ship, enjoying the grim luxury of looking up occasionally to mutter, “Well, you sure got that bit wrong, Jack” as deck chairs skitter, lifeboats lower away, the cold turns bitter, and Kate and Leo feel conspicuous in their absence.

On top of that, the novel is structured as a globe-hopping thriller, which was doubtless Wright’s way of tooling his material to whet Ridley Scott’s appetite. But the roller-coaster effect doesn’t jibe very well with Wright’s—and now our—more serious concerns. Henry Parsons is supposed to be an austere medical savant, but he doesn’t spend any more time in his lab than Indiana Jones did in his classroom. Instead, he’s got to make a hair-raising escape from Saudi Arabia as missiles whoosh before he ends up aboard a US Navy submarine whose crew is infected with Kongoli, making his hunt for a cure considerably more desperate and improvisational.

True, Anthony Fauci might well consider this fate preferable to being trapped at one of Trump’s press briefings. But Henry doesn’t even set foot in his CDC office—or learn what’s become of his wife and kids, who’ve been having their own survivalist adventures as Atlanta turns into a Walking Dead wasteland—until near the book’s end. And since every thriller needs a supervillain, Wright dutifully coughs one up, to depressingly trite effect. Long before the most arrogant of Henry’s onetime Fort Detrick colleagues spills the beans—to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, no less—that “humans have become a problem” and “there is little doubt that the planet would be better off without us,” we’ve spotted that familiar figure, the mad scientist who wants to play God.

Unless Trumpland’s wildest conspiracy theories turn out to be spot-on, these high jinks are bound to strike readers as a mite incongruous with the subject at hand. They’re also the main reason The End of October ends up reading less like Coronavirus: The Novel than Coronavirus: The Movie. Wright’s story might have made a highly entertaining one under other circumstances—if we were still able to go to movie theaters, for instance. But we hardly need Brad Pitt to play Henry Parsons when Pitt is performing a modest public service by lionizing Anthony Fauci on SNL instead.

A longtime writer on pop culture and politics, Tom Carson is the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).