Spoiler alert The Brief :History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Norwegian libraries usually have a small section of books in English, a very small section. It’s dominated by the genres they know are going to be popular, which means crime and romance, but once in a while I find a book that turns out to be worth my time. I checked out the book The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier around ten years ago, and it was one of those books that stayed with me for a long time.
I was especially fascinated by the description of the afterlife, which was more or less business as usual in New York. It wasn’t exactly a wonderland, but it was better than life in some ways. I’ll try not to spoil the fun if you want to read it yourself, but a part of the plot is a plague. No one is quite sure what’s going on, whether there were governments or terrorists behind, but people are dying. It’s probably a part of several cultures, but I recognise it from Norse traditions, the idea that your dead relatives aren’t really gone as long as you remember them. There is a mystery in the afterlife, which is a place called The City. New buildings pop up to accomodate new arrivals, but then they start disappearing, and no one knows what’s happening.
It turns out there are less and less living people to remember them, and when there’s no one left to think about them, they simply vanish. What caused this was a virus, and the biggest producer of soda tried to exploit people’s fear any way they could. Their latest stunt was to send scientists to Antarctica to investigate the possibility of using the cleanest water on Earth, as fresh water everywhere else was threatened. But what if water was never the target? What if it was something else used in soda?
I can’t remember the details of the book, but I have a feeling it was a fascinating idea that in the end left me unsatisfied, especially the afterlife that seemed to be just as dystopic as real life. I don’t know if this is a misery loves company situation, but people seem to be attracted to it. Whenever there’s something dramatic happening somewhere in the world we are glued to the TV screen. It doesn’t matter how many times the news anchors and correspondents have repeated themselves, we want to hear them focus on the negative as much as possible. It makes me think back on tracer ammunition in the first Gulf War, and the warnings of Scud missiles in Israel. It looked good on CNN, but we soon learned that breaking news wasn’t quite what we had in mind. The anticipation and disappointment journalists expressed was pretty creepy.
The news are pushing us closer and closer to panic every day, so there are definitely mixed messages. On one hand we are being told that this virus isn’t particularly dangerous to the vast majority of us, and on the other hand governments’ response to it suggests there is reason for concern. I wish someone could tell us that we as a society can handle this. Quarantine is known to be ineffective for several reasons, partly because you can be infected without having symptoms. In other words, you will never be able to isolate the virus completely, and it certainly doesn’t respect borders.
There also seems to be a misery loves company in the sense that people read novels about pandemics these days. There are multiple best of lists around, and they usually include The Plague by Albert Camus, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, The Stand by Stephen King, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I guess it isn’t enough to live it. We need to read it as well.
Speaking of Stephen King, this is starting to look like Under the Dome. Donald Trump has suspended flights from 26 European countries, which leaves the virus free to travel from the remaining 18 European countries. I’ve heard about families that are separated, because there are more and more countries refusing to let people return from an infected area. Denmark has closed all schools. Italy has closed all stores and restaurants, and in Norway the NATO exercise Cold Response has been cancelled. There may have been some irony there, if it hadn’t been discouraging, because it does suggest what kind of weapon would work in the future. It’s starting to look like we may follow other countries, as some universities and schools have already closed.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this inspired authors to write a few more novels where a virus played the main role, and I can think of a few scenarios about what caused it, and what it led to. In the mean time, the best we can do is to stay calm, help our family and neighbours, and not hoard. We should all have a supply of things at home in case something happens, and this is one of those situations many didn’t think could happen.
Some experts think Covid-19 will visit us more or less every year as a seasonal flu, but when governments evaluate the response after this incident, I hope they learn something about making rational decisions. The biggest threat could turn out be a society overwhelmed by panic. For the time being, you’ll probably be better off reading a novel than watching news 18 hours a day.