Our Reading Lives

On Reading Pandemic Fiction During a Pandemic

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Steph Auteri

Senior Contributor

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more creative work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, under the gum tree, Poets & Writers, and other publications, and she is the Essays Editor for Hippocampus Magazine. Her essay, "The Fear That Lives Next to My Heart," published in Southwest Review, was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2021. She also writes bookish stuff here and at the Feminist Book Club, is the author of A Dirty Word, and is the founder of Guerrilla Sex Ed. When not working, she enjoys yoga, embroidery, singing, cat snuggling, and staring at the birds in her backyard feeder. You can learn more at stephauteri.com and follow her on Insta/Threads at @stephauteri.

I read adrienne maree brown’s Grievers during our COVID Christmas. My husband had brought the virus home after attending a work event in the city, testing positive just a day or so before the hysteria over Omicron began sweeping the country.

The ingredients I’d purchased for spinach balls and an orange bundt cake with maple cream frosting and other holiday dishes were pushed to the back of the pantry. My husband spent his days playing video games in the basement, his nights on the couch in the TV room. I managed the house — and our 7-year-old — without him. She and I wore masks around each other 24/7. I hadn’t been able to secure a test, and I didn’t want to pass the virus along to my daughter in the event I had it. I was still feeling sick from the booster and struggling with breathing problems. It was hard to tell. I didn’t want to take any chances.

The house looked like holiday magic. A tree in the living room was filled to bursting with ornaments and multicolored lights. Light-up snowflakes hung in the windows. Snow globes sparkled in the dining room. I read Grievers in bed, partially reclined, wheezing, exhausted. My daughter bemoaned her isolation, calling it “the worst Christmas break ever!” When she left the room, I cried for her, my hands clenched in frustration.

Just two years before, I had read Ling Ma’s Severance and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers and had thought them fiction. In Severance, people were caught up in routine, stuck performing the same ritual over and over until they died, a fate that now felt familiar as days bled into each other. I read Wanderers, meanwhile, delighted by just how terrifying it was. I read about society tearing itself apart as people fell prey to a sleepwalking epidemic, gasped at the conclusion, and considered it entertainment.

The Growing Urgency of Pandemic Fiction

In February 2020, just weeks before schools shut down, I read Rory Power’s Wilder Girls. In it, girls grow feral as — isolated on the island where their school is located — their teachers begin dying, soon followed by their classmates. Still, they remain clustered on the school grounds, waiting for a cure. It is as I am reading this that we begin to hear the first rumblings about a virus. We’re told to wash our hands. To bump elbows instead of shaking hands.

“Wait…wasn’t everyone already washing their hands?” we joke, making light of the whole thing.

We are not yet waiting for a cure because the virus doesn’t feel real yet. As the media suggests songs to sing while lathering up our hands, it just feels silly.

When the schools shut down, many of us assume it will only be for two weeks. When our kindergartners never go back to kindergarten, we begin to wonder how long we will be stuck in this thing. Many of us suffer reader’s block. Others of us who can no longer handle heavier works of literature or cultural critique begin to lean on genre fiction. Comic horror. Dark humor. Dystopian fiction, because it is better than looking straight into the face of the dystopia in which we are living.

Pandemic Fiction As A Container for Our Anxiety and Rage

It is not until late August 2020 that we are told what the coming school year will bring: an impossible choice, one between a hybrid schedule and fully remote learning.

A vocal group of parents decries this decision, demanding full-day, in-person schooling. They shout stridently about “the mental health of our children.” They complain about mask mandates.

Others of us wonder what it would do to the mental health of our children if they brought the virus home and it killed someone they loved. We wonder about long COVID. We wonder about everything we do not yet know for sure.

Sure, we wish our children could be in school, be with their friends, be out of our hair. Of course we do. But we don’t want to take any chances.

It is at this time, at my highest point of frustration and anxiety, at a time when I feel the most fully abandoned by a federal government that has failed to give sufficient guidance to anyone, that I read Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song and Charles Wheelan’s The Rationing. In Survivor Song, Massachusetts is overrun by a rabies-like virus and the state’s emergency protocols prove inadequate. In The Rationing, a political satire, the United States finds they don’t have nearly enough of the drug that has been designed to keep a deadly pathogen at bay. The White House struggles to control the narrative, restock its supplies, and make some difficult decisions. Both books echo my own bitterness over how America has handled the real-life pandemic.

By the time I read Roxane Gay’s The Sacrifice of Darkness two months later — not technically pandemic fiction, but definitely dystopian — it is impossible to sustain the level of anxiety in which I have been existing.

And so, my anxiety turns to hate.

In Gay’s graphic novel, a man flies an air machine into the sun and the world turns dark. The darkness persists for years and members of the community begin to turn their resentment and hate toward the family he leaves behind.

It’s unwarranted, this hate. Much as my own animosity toward a community divided by circumstance is, I suppose, unwarranted.

As the book moves slowly toward love and hope, I wait for my own darker feelings to subside so I can feel empathy again.

Pandemic Fiction as a Mirror

Another year passes and, by the time a new school year is upon us, by the time I have to push through my fear to send my daughter back to the classroom (we are given no choice), I feel that I am in a rhythm. We are vaccinated, and soon our children will be, too. In the meantime, we buy child-sized masks in bulk, kiss our children goodbye in the morning, and send them off toward uncertainty. At home, we piece together puzzles in free moments. We pick up even more new hobbies. We make hideously deformed hot cocoa bombs. We learn embroidery.

I read Victor LaValle’s Eve, a limited comic series that takes place in a world destroyed by global warming, by a disease that was released when the ice caps melted. The series ends with hope, with the possibility that life might be restored to the planet. I read Carley Moore’s Panpocalypse next, about a queer disabled woman who craves touch and connection and love in the midst of the pandemic. This book also feels hopeful and so, too, are we.

Our children get their series of shots. Soon, there will be boosters. Soon, we will be able to gather with our families for Christmas.

Reading as a Conduit for Our Grief

Living through this pandemic has forced us to live through ongoing trauma. We forget this, sometimes. We become used to it. Used to the constant headaches, the anxiety, the exhaustion. All of this is normal. And so, we forget we’re still in it.

When I read Grievers during our COVID Christmas, I have been knocked off balance again. I remember again. I feel as if I am flailing about, just trying to get back to that place of not remembering.

Of being so deep in it that I don’t even notice anymore.

In Grievers, Detroit is overrun by a mysterious illness in which people become frozen, trapped in a moment of extreme grief, stuck there until they waste away and die (an echo of Severance?). Black folks and those living in poverty seem to be targeted by this illness and, soon, it seems clear that residents have been abandoned by the larger world, written off in an attempt to protect the rest of the country.

It is a quiet novella, and one that is deeply sad, even as it deftly highlights the ways in which we continue to abandon certain large swaths of the population.

Reading it feels right in a moment where cautious hope has been snatched away. Where systemic inequities only seem to grow.

Aren’t we all grieving that? Aren’t we all grieving something?