Almost any novel about a pandemic would feel unnervingly prescient right now. But the new thriller The End of October, by Lawrence Wright, feels more prescient than most.
Wright is a writer for the New Yorker who won a Pulitzer for his 2007 nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In The End of October, out this week, he puts his reporting background to use as he imagines what would happen if a novel virus were to spread across the globe. And the scenario he conjures is eerily close to the one we’re currently living through.
The End of October is not a good book if we’re talking about sheer storytelling craft. The plot hums along ably enough, but the characters are flat, the women exist mostly to be sexually assaulted and/or die, and the prose is workmanlike at best. You’re not reading this book to experience a beautiful work of art.
Under normal circumstances, it would be an airport thriller, the kind of book you buy on a whim when your flight is delayed and leave on the plane when you’re done. But under our particular circumstances, in which I deeply hope you are not engaging in any kind of nonessential travel whatsoever, things are different.
What makes The End of October compelling to read right now is that Wright researched the hell out of what kind of infrastructure the US would need to survive a pandemic. He concluded that we did not have it. And then he drew on his formidable knowledge of domestic and international politics to imagine what would ensue.
He got disconcertingly close to reality.
In The End of October, social distancing helps stave off the worst of a pandemic. Then social distancing ends and things get really bad.
The second time I put down The End of October and said, “Oh god, too soon,” was when Wright’s unresponsive president — never named — puts his callow vice president in charge of the pandemic response team.
The pandemic in this case is the result of a novel influenza virus, one quickly dubbed the Kongoli flu. (The World Health Organization’s new guidelines against naming illnesses after places haven’t filtered through to the world of this book.) It’s a hemorrhagic fever that first emerges in an Indonesian refugee camp among a group of immunocompromised HIV-positive refugees. But when Wright’s hero, a WHO microbiologist named Henry Parsons, visits the camp to investigate the new disease, he accidentally exposes his driver to infection. And the infected driver, carrying the disease asymptomatically, proceeds to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The driver dies. Henry, who realized the danger he was in only too late, manages to talk Saudi Arabian officials into putting Mecca under quarantine, but not for long. Plus, he knows he’s only buying time for scientists to begin planning a global crisis response, anyway: The disease is carried by birds, which means it will inevitably spread across the world.
Meanwhile, the quarantine in Mecca inflames existing global tensions. Iran attacks Saudia Arabia, claiming that it is holding Iranian citizens without cause. Russia and the US use the ensuing conflict to begin a proxy war, with each superpower blaming the other for the spread of the virus. In strategic meetings, White House officials dismiss the virus as a distraction. It may or may not ever reach the US, they reason, but the threat of war with Russia is absolutely concrete.
The first time I put down the book and said, “Oh god, too soon,” came during one of those early strategic meetings. A public health service officer is trying to explain to the National Security Council Deputies Committee exactly why they should be worried about a pandemic.
First, she says, there’s the issue of the timeline. “With luck on our side, we could have an experimental vaccine for small-scale testing in six months,” the officer says. “This all takes time, especially scaling up to millions of doses. But we don’t have time.” The virus is already spreading, and it will arrive in the US well before a vaccine will be ready.
The deputy secretary of state begins to grow “very impatient” with this lecture. “We don’t really need a lesson on flu,” she observes. She wants to talk about war with Russia.
But it isn’t a normal flu, the public health officer explains. There’s no immunity within the general population. Unless the government takes urgent measures, nearly everyone will catch it. And many of them will die.
Moreover, once news of the pandemic gets out, there will be the problem of managing public fear. “There will be runs on the stores,” the public health officer says. “Pharmaceuticals, groceries, batteries, gas, guns, you name it. Hospitals will be overwhelmed, not just with sick people but with the worried well.”
It would be best, she concludes, if the population could just be encouraged to shelter in place: “borders closed, sports and entertainment facilities shuttered, nonemergency cases discharged from hospitals, schools closed, public meetings postponed, and the government shut down.”
In response, “The deputies simply stared at her.”
I wanted to reach through my Kindle screen and strangle them.
Despite misgivings from government officials, the US does eventually begin to implement social distancing measures, with stores and other businesses shutting their doors. And those measures are successful. The virus is quickly contained. Not that many people die: The death toll is “within the parameters,” Lawrence writes, “of what people thought was an ordinary flu season.” And so, responding to mounting political pressure to “let the economy breathe,” the US drops its measures. That’s when things get really bad.
Hospitals run out of ventilators, along with masks, gloves, and diagnostic test kits. India and China are no longer able to produce essential medicines because they are fighting the pandemic within their own borders, and the US has no stockpiles of those medicines. The fabric of society begins to crumple. The CDC predicts that another wave of the disease will arrive within six months, by the end of October.
The End of October is a pulpy book. I resent it for coming true.
At this point in the book, things also start to get pulpy. Or, to put it more accurately, the part of The End of October’s already-pulpy plot that has not ended up unexpectedly coming true starts to make itself known. Russia takes advantage of the global mayhem to attack the US’s infrastructure, knocking out the electric grid. And the mounting conspiracy theory that the virus was manmade turns out to have some truth to it.
But even this plot twist has some unnerving resonances with our own reality. One of Wright’s major suspects for the question of who designed the virus turns out to be a team of ecofascists, and their rhetoric about how it is the rest of the world that must be saved from human beings is awfully close to the “we are the virus” meme that’s all over the internet in the real world.
As I read The End of October, I found myself resenting it. It was such a silly potboiler of a novel, with such unbelievable characters, such leaden sentences, such infuriatingly clumsy dialogue. How dare the world in which I am actually living so closely resemble a fucking airport thriller?
Wright is undoubtedly a gifted reporter and observer of the world, and the fact that he was able to so clearly see where the existing fault lines in our social fabric lay and how they could be exacerbated by a pandemic shows real skill on his part. But the fact that Wright got so many of his details overwhelmingly right is also a reminder that this pandemic did not come out of nowhere. It was not difficult to predict. It was, in fact, something that we were told was coming over and over again, something that the people we elected to protect us from such a pandemic chose to willfully ignore.
This pandemic should not have caught us off our guard. It should have been as easy to see coming as the final twist in a cheap thriller.
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