Our particular era strikes me as especially susceptible to this impulse. Part of the reason is that our response to disaster (terrorist attacks, hurricanes, school shootings) is to get out there and declare the death of irony. Like Steve Carell’s character on “The Office,” who declares bankruptcy by screaming, “I declare bankruptcy!,” you can’t just cry sincerity because you want a shortcut to perspective or because you want to keep your jokes inoffensive. When the coronavirus has passed, we will say, sincerely, perhaps for the first time in our lives, Our long national nightmare is over. But this will not be our final use of the phrase. It will be a caption on the Instagram post of someone’s post-quarantine haircut, I promise. Yet in the moment, we feel the need to prove our solemnity on social media by setting a universal mood, and this is poison to actual book writing.
The other issue that separates our particular time from the 1600s (aside from the hygiene and the snacks) is the personal voice to which we’ve become accustomed — “I” being the vowel of the century. As someone who has repeatedly elected to write about her own life, I find the prospect of being forced into it by a global wreck to be chilling. This is no longer a few people’s story (a novella set on a quarantined cruise ship — yes, of course!). This is now everyone’s story. And here we have a generation of writers, myself included, already inclined toward narrative nonfiction, who are about to spend a ton of time literally staring at the walls. Yikes.
If we know about all these pitfalls, why do we continue trying to interpret our nightmares as they happen?
On Sunday at 7 a.m., I decided to take a socially-distanced stroll to my favorite coffee shop. This was the morning after Spain and France shuttered all nonessential businesses, a policy destined to cross the Atlantic. When I got out on the street, there was no one. Not even the minimum head count for a Bob Dylan album cover. There were no customers in the coffee shop either, no one to distance myself from. On the walk home, tears streamed down my face.
There was no need for this. Who did I expect to see on the streets of Downtown Manhattan at 7 a.m. on a Sunday? Under the best of circumstances, this is the dominion of expensive-looking joggers. People would come soon enough, hopefully not too many, hopefully not too together. Even the Italians can walk the dog. Even the Italians cannot keep from singing. But, pitiful as it was, I didn’t want the moment to pass. Those tears had done what the anxiety had failed to do: put a fine point on a reality. And this is the feeling we will need from the stories that come out of this crisis. The good ones will not be born of ego or competition or fear. They will slow things down. They will put the new world into sharp relief. Right now, such novels seem like an impossible luxury. But I trust we’re all taking notes. Taking notes, taking care. And we’ll see who gets to this material first.
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