In 2025, a virus that targets only men has emerged out of newly independent Scotland. Victims drop dead mere days after developing flu-like symptoms. For a short period, the infected are asymptomatic and can spread the virus unawares. Women are immune, but also carriers. Travel and trade grind to a halt as the global search for a vaccine begins, but few are hopeful it’ll be any time soon. Shortages and rationing ensue. There’s tea in France but not in England. Blimey.
Sound sorta familiar? Christina Sweeney-Baird finished her novel The End of Men (Doubleday Canada, 416 pages) in 2018, well before Covid’s protein spikes were a glimmer in any microscope’s eye. That kind of perspicacity guarantees a couple of things: media coverage, firstly and requests from friends to buy their lottery tickets, secondly. The downside is that your readers, newly pandemic-savvy, know more about your chosen subject than might otherwise be ideal. When terms like mRNA, community spread, curve-flattening and zoonotic become part of everyday parlance, it’s harder to fudge certain details.
An example is the book’s depiction of the eureka moment where a lab worker breathlessly informs Lisa, lead vaccine researcher at the University of Toronto, that the magic formula has finally been found – no chimps have died! – at which point other labs around the world immediately throw in the towel. This despite Lisa’s ethically dubious plan to sell the vaccine and make herself the richest, most despised person on earth. This is clearly at odds with our recent, collective crash course in how these things work. Where are Phase 2 and 3 trials?! The cage-match between vaccine brands? The vaccine hesitancy? (If only that were the stuff of speculative fiction.)
We all experienced COVID’s impact on supply chains: the toilet paper, yes, but who would have imagined a run on bicycles, used cars, rescue dogs and houseplants? A man-eliminating virus would have thrown an even bigger spanner into such processes: who’d be left to pilot all those container ships full of tube socks? In The End of Men, major crises are instigated by the sudden lack of electricians and security personnel, but the power grid somehow never collapses, thanks to the rapid implementation of Rosie-the-Riveter-style training programs. Video calls become go-to forms of communication, but they’re conducted – brace yourself – via Skype, not Zoom.
That tedious nit-picking wouldn’t have happened, obviously, in 2019. And now that it’s out of the way I can tell you that Sweeney-Baird acquits herself very impressively in The End of Men. If some of the novel’s pandemic mechanics don’t always ring true to our COVID-weary ears, the same cannot be said for its treatment of The Plague’s social and emotional fallout, which, it soon becomes clear, is where Sweeney-Baird’s true interest lies.
The novel’s narrative load is divvied up between a revolving cast of diverse characters, among them Amanda, the Scottish physician who first discovers the virus (and is dismissed as hysterical by a male colleague); Catherine, a social anthropologist in London; Rosamie, a Filipino nanny to a wealthy Singapore family; and Toby, an engineer who gets stuck for over a year in a ship adrift off the coast of Iceland. Keeping her chapters short and snappy, Sweeney-Baird avoids the usual pitfall of this approach; namely, readers’ tendency to prefer the company of certain characters. Early on, as the deaths pile up, she ping-pongs effortlessly between wit and poignancy, leaving us Janus-faced right out of the gate.
Here, the lucky are those with daughters, or with a husband among the 10 per cent who are naturally immune. As women slowly seep into positions of power, ethical quandaries arise. With sperm “like gold dust,” who will be allowed to have children? There’s outrage when the United States’s supposedly random “child lottery” turns out to be algorithm-based. Others reap professional benefits, including Dawn, a young Black civil servant who ends up as the operations director of MI5 after a series of rapid-fire promotions. The novel’s tone is smart, but never smug: there’s no panacea in a female-dominated world, just outcomes good, bad and unforeseen. Suicide among gay men skyrockets. China initially falls into civil war, eventually emerging as a group of smaller democratic states. Vaccine certificates eventually enable commercial travel to return, and life to a version of normal. Now there’s a novel idea.
“If men were wiped from the planet … at what point would we just focus on becoming strong?” the protagonist of Lisa Taddeo’s Animal (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages) asks as she considers her need to attract men. “Pretty much right away,” is the answer Christina Sweeney-Baird has suggested. But Joan isn’t living in 2025, she’s in the present-day in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, to which she’s just fled, in part to distance herself from the image of her older, married lover, Vic, blowing his head off in front of her and her younger, married lover at a packed Manhattan restaurant.
Animal’s sensational-looking cover, which quotes Joan on the sometimes necessity of “killing men in times like these,” suggests a Tarantino-esque MeToo-revenge-thriller about a woman pushed to the breaking point by abusers. But it takes a while before we get there. And while Joan has suffered both outright and “somewhat” rape, as well as molestation when she was a child, the novel’s men are far from monsters or caricatures. Nor is Joan – who describes herself as “depraved” – what you’d call a perennial victim. Sex, the driving force in her life, can be either transactional or performative, but it’s always a means to something. When she senses she holds power over a man, as she did over Vic, her fatherly, dull, besotted boss at the ad-agency where she worked, she milks it for all it’s worth. “I sent Vic to the depths of what a man can stand,” she brags. In Topanga Canyon, her contempt becomes focused on her semi-senile landlord, Lenny, who uses her as a sounding board for his guilt over his treatment of his late wife, Lenore. Lenny is far from the worst of his kind, but Joan knows he’s easy prey, and she eventually becomes fixated on destroying him.
Joan doesn’t need a shrink to explain that her approach to relationships stems from trauma. She refers to men, in general, as “all these paltry stand-ins for my father.” When she was 10, her Italian-American parents died in unpleasant circumstances not revealed till the end of the book. Though he adored her, her father had also a secret life, hence the existence of Joan’s step-sister, Alice, whom she hopes to find in L.A. Frozen out of her mother’s affections, Joan had instead fetishized her womanly accoutrements: the make up, clothes, jewellery. When adult Joan describes her sexual exploits, she always mentions the dress she wore. Clothes, for her, are both armour and artillery.
Few writers can match Taddeo’s swagger on sentence-level. She has a knack for the unexpected, shocking phrase that feels nonchalantly tossed, like dynamite to a fire. The best of these can’t be quoted in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say they keep us turning the pages – as does our desire to know the truth about Joan’s sorry past. Taddeo likes to pull us in close then do her level best to offend with brusque talk of abortions and bloody miscarriages, of dripping sweat and sticky drawers.
When Joan finally finds Alice, who’s oblivious to their relatedness, she’s both captivated by and jealous of her beauty. Her language turns murderous and gastronomic: Joan wants to devour Alice, but also kill or hit her. Animal’s portrayal of this dynamic reads a bit like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels re-cast as pornographic noir. Ferrante-like, too, is the barrage of frowning prose, which can feel more emanated than written. The book’s sinister, hyper-sexualized atmosphere (to Joan, even the cops who arrive at the scene of Vic’s suicide looked “horny”) doesn’t titillate as much as it leaves us with a sense of visceral, skin-crawling unease.
That the plot keeps delving deeper into the realm of improbability is mitigated, to a degree, by Taddeo’s evocation of a landscape that seems to border on the mythic and unreal. Outside Joan’s window in the Canyon, coyotes prowl ceaselessly in the scrub, howling when women menstruate. There are snakes too, of course. Animal isn’t, in the end, a great novel, but it is an indelible, mesmerizing one by a frighteningly talented writer.
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