- The End of October
- Author: Lawrence Wright
- Genre: Fiction
- Publisher: Knopf
- Pages: 400
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began playing havoc with the world, I’ve been sifting through my memories of disparate pop-culture artifacts of The Before Time – episodes of Seinfeld, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, HBO’s adaptation of Watchmen, etc. – to find proof of their prescience. Larry David was obsessed with washing his hands! Arrested Development should’ve trademarked the catch phrase “No touching!” Tony Soprano couldn’t stop talking about the flu! Etc.
It’s a running joke I’m having with myself. Of course, no one could have predicted our current coronavirus-wracked, economically ravaged, physically distanced world. If you squint hard enough, everything and anything can seem prophetic.
But then there is Lawrence Wright.
The New Yorker journalist – one of the most important non-fiction writers working today, thanks to his gripping accounts on everything from the rise of Al-Qaeda (The Looming Tower) to the inner workings of Scientology (Going Clear) – has spent the past decade conceiving of a novel chronicling how the world might end. It was an exercise sparked by a question to him from film director Ridley Scott, who was wondering what events might have led to the devastated world depicted in, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. A kind of pre-post-apocalyptic story.
After conducting a typically intensive bout of research – and considering the obvious subjects of nuclear war and climate change – Wright landed on his means of destruction: a coronavirus. One that originates in Asia and spreads rapidly across the world. It sparks lockdowns, grinds the global economy to a halt and decimates public-health, government and societal institutions. Oh, and at the centre of it is a besieged World Health Organization and a U.S. President intent on placing his own interests ahead of his country’s, when he’s not fuelling all-out war by blaming foreign powers for the pandemic.
To say, then, that Wright’s new novel The End of October, out this week, is prescient would be an understatement. This is the novel as Nostradamus. It is bewilderingly, terrifyingly all-too-real. Which is both excellent and terrible news for Wright. No author could have asked for better timing, in terms of marketing hooks. And in the midst of panic, people inevitably turn toward art that offers a reflection, however cracked, of our current moment: there is a reason why Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion sits so high right now on Netflix’s most-watched ranking.
But reading The End of October is also like sticking one hand in a dormant blender, with the other hovering above the “on” switch. I have never swung so wildly between high anxiety and deep dread than when ploughing through The End of October’s 400 pages earlier this month. I couldn’t stop reading it, and I’m not quite sure whether that was a testament to the writing itself or because I had a sick anticipation of seeing what new horror awaited on the next page, just to prepare what might be coming down the pandemic pipe in my own life.
The answer is an uneasy mixture of both. As Wright follows Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist Henry Parsons and his bid to study the virus – from discovering it in an internment camp in Indonesia to trying to quell its early spread in Saudi Arabia during Hajj – he frequently proves that he might be a strong journalist with impeccable instincts, but he is no literary master.
Wright has a play (the political drama Camp David) and a screenplay (the similarly prophetic 1998 war-on-terror movie The Siege) to his credit, but no long-form fiction before this. Which makes sense; he is strongest when straight-forwardly chronicling history and digging up little-known details, not painting rich interior lives or stretching a sentence until its beauty reveals itself.
Just as his journalism clearly explained how, say, 9/11 came to pass or why America was once gripped with Satanic panic (his 1995 account Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory is a must-read on mass hysteria), The End of October works best when explaining facts and putting them into context. In this case, that’s the pure science of how a novel coronavirus works and how it might be stamped out.
So strip away The End of October’s technical expertise and narrative clairvoyance – which is often hard to do, given how eerily accurate Wright is in envisioning our current reality – and the book is ultimately an elevated airport thriller.
Henry and the rest of the heroes and villains he encounters along the way are certainly interesting creations, but not exactly layered or complicated. Many incidents feel explicitly crafted to appeal to Hollywood producers looking for splashy set-pieces – there is a moment of bloody chaos near Mecca that begs to be filmed – and a good deal of the dialogue is just as screenplay-simple. And when Wright swerves into Henry’s professional back story, which includes the appearance of an evil genius straight out of James Bond territory (or worse: Austin Powers), the entire endeavour threatens to go off the rails.
Still, if you’re morbidly curious as to where we might stand come this fall, you’re not likely to find a clearer, more horrifying answer than The End of October. If the world reads this today, we might be able to avoid Wright’s tomorrow.
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