That is not an excerpt from a news conference by Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, but a quote from “The End of October,” a new novel by Lawrence Wright (available April 28). The advance reader’s copy of this book has been sitting on my shelf since January. Inside its covers were words I’d never heard before, such as coronavirus, and concepts I’d never thought about, such as social distancing and ventilator shortages and being killed by your body’s immune response to a disease, rather than the disease itself. But as the book sat there, the world around it changed to the point that much of its content has merged with the daily news.
The fiction writers saw it coming, that’s for sure. For years, writers such as Emily St. John Mandel (“Station Eleven”) and Ling Ma (“Severance”) have created literary entertainment with brilliantly and sometimes whimsically imagined post-pandemic worlds. The thriller angle on the killer-virus-gone-out-of-control was pioneered by Michael Crichton back in 1969 with “The Andromeda Strain,” and pursued more recently by Dan Brown and Robin Cook, as well as Scott Burns, who wrote the screenplay for the 2011 film “Contagion.”
But now that reality has caught up with speculative fiction, there are some questions to ask yourself before picking up “The End of October.” Is terrifying yourself with the details of how a pandemic spreads — say among masses of worshipers at the hajj in Mecca — going to be the good kind of scary? Will the possibility that it has been engineered by Russian President Vladimir Putin or anti-Muslim interests be fun to think about? Is a conversation about rumors that Anderson Cooper, Brad Pitt and Taylor Swift have died diverting to imagine? And if the whole thing goes completely off the rails into global terrorism, biological warfare, moral depravity and the end of civilization, is that an informative thought experiment, or too close to the nerve?
Wright himself has said he has mixed feeling about the book: “In some ways, I have to admit, I’m kind of proud that I imagined things that, in real life, seem to be coming into existence,” he told the New Yorker this month. “On the other hand, I feel embarrassed to have written this and have it come out.”
While the truth-is-stranger-than fiction aspects of Wright’s thriller plot may not work as well in April 2020 as they might have at a more innocent time, his skill as a nonfiction writer shines through. Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is best known for books such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” a deep look at al-Qaeda and 9/11, “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State” (a beloved personal favorite) and “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” among other works.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most captivating parts of his novel are his explanations of science. Viruses, he explains, work because they are covered with spikes that function “like a pirate boarding party,” fastening on to a cell “like a grappling hook” to get inside and replicate themselves thousands of times, ultimately become a guiding force behind evolution. (Wright has said he spent months reading journal articles and interviewing scientists, security experts and public health officials.)
The tricky thing is that because this is fiction, you’re not sure where the research ends and the dark fantasy begins. I actually spent a little time Googling a character, an evil Soviet scientist named Dr. Nikolai Ustinov, to see if he might be real. Fortunately, I found only the actor Peter Ustinov.
From a character-development and story-arc perspective, there are some dubious choices. The emotional core of the book has to do with the extended separation of a family due to travel shutdown. When they are suddenly back together with no reunion scene, I felt a bit cheated. And the ever-unfolding and very crazy backstory of the main character, microbiologist Dr. Henry Parsons, flattens, rather than deepens, his character. If you are a fan of the Dan Brown/Michael Crichton school of thriller, you might be more tolerant of that sort of thing than I am. In that case, you might enjoy this book. It’s a definite maybe.
Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”
THE END OF OCTOBER
By Lawrence Wright
Knopf. 400 pp. $27.95