How do novelists incorporate the pandemic into their work?

As the pandemic turns the world as we know it upside down, how are novelists integrating this cataclysm into their work?

As the pandemic turns the world as we know it upside down, how are novelists integrating this cataclysm into their work?

Fall 2019, the final months of what is now held in our consciousness as the last normal year. I had been selected for a writer’s residency on a remote island in the Åland archipelago in the Baltic Sea to start writing a science fiction novel. Driving down the sparsely populated main street, I point out to the program coordinator that seeing so few people in India would mean the apocalypse has already happened. She finds it amusing.

Jumpcut a few months later, and I’m on my grocery run in Hyderabad: the roads are completely empty except for a group of peacocks wandering around – they’ve escaped the confines of the large park in the heart of the city . The isolation I wanted to distill for my novel, for which I had traveled so far, had come home.

lost logic

I now have to place the pandemic somewhere in the timeline of my novel. My worries pale in comparison to the authors who released books during this difficult time. Samit Basu’s Long-Awaited Speculative Fiction Novel chosen spirits set in a cyberpunk Delhi a decade from now, launched just as India sank into lockdown. Protagonist Joey’s growing years are our present: as a teenager, she attends anti-CAA protests. What would Joey think of the virus?

I ask Basu if he thought it necessary to mention it. He says: “There may have been some references to past pandemics in previous research, but I didn’t want to make any major last-minute changes based on an ongoing event.”

In the face of a pandemic that has wrought so much destruction, the setbacks of fiction writers may not count for much. Still, there’s no denying that for novelists engaged in years of literary work, the changes that followed this disaster upended their carefully crafted fictional worlds.

Science fiction writers are banking on what Philip K. Dick has called “dysrecognition shock,” which is a “conceptual dislocation” encountering a world similar to ours, but crucially different. Other genres have more fundamental issues – Zoom calls aren’t conducive to romance or murder.

They are still looking for ways to reconcile what was and what is. Says novelist Amrita Tripathi of her manuscript: “I felt like something was missing. The internal logic of the story… no longer holds. Not least because a character’s major developments have to do with being isolated as part of their own quest – it felt a bit hollow considering everything that’s going on.

Too huge to ignore

In Devapriya Roy’s recent short story, there’s a cute boy-girl encounter, with the boy refusing to wear a mask. But her developing novel hit a snag. Roy says, “I started a novel just before the pandemic; it’s the one I’ve been planning to write for a decade…I’ve completely taken a break now, as I don’t know how I’ll fit the pandemic into it. But also, given that it’s a bit the story of our generation, how not to do it?

Of course, there is no reason for the pandemic to be present. After all, the Napoleonic Wars don’t intrude on Jane Austen’s novels at all. Even the Spanish flu did not mark Western literature, thanks to what the Israeli historian Guy Beiner calls “social oblivion”. Instead, the violent narrative sweep of World War I captured the public imagination and clung to it. For Basu, eliding the pandemic for an upcoming American edition of chosen spirits was not an option. “It’s too huge an event to ignore… I did a rewrite incorporating the events of 2020/21 into the world building, as a backstory for the near future world characters,” says- he.

It must therefore appear in the literary strata, just as the earth registers all its cataclysms. But still, says Tripathi, “At the moment I don’t think I can write the pandemic – it’s too real, gritty, horrific. But I don’t think I can avoid it completely either.” While the war in Ukraine is making headlines, perhaps the pandemic is already integrated into the larger narrative of global suffering.

What is Basu’s “view of the future” in its revised version? “I decided to take an optimistic stance, that we would get past this pandemic and not have another one of this magnitude immediately after,” he says.

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.