The End of October (2020) by Lawrence Wright – Fiction
Well…this book is about a pandemic. I kept thinking while I was reading, did Lawrence Wright have some premonition that 2020 was the year that a global pandemic would hit the world and now is the time to push out a “fiction” novel dealing with a similar global catastrophe?
He of course didn’t have a premonition (that I know of). But reading his novel nonetheless conveys a very eerie feeling. It is not often that you dually experience something as life-altering as a pandemic while reading a novel about a pandemic. This is only Wright’s second novel but he has a slew of nonfiction works. The End of October, at times, reads like one of his nonfiction books – heavy on scientific detail and background. But, he pairs that with characters who are believable as human beings and a story that is provocative. Similar to a Michael Crichton book – Wright is able to mesh science and fiction together pretty seamlessly.
The book centers on Henry Parsons – an infectious disease doctor and researcher currently working at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. At a medical conference in Europe, he is asked to visit a prisoner camp in Indonesia to understand and document a sickness that has killed several prisoners and medical staff. Quickly, Parsons realizes that this disease is a strain a flu that causes hemorrhagic fever. It is spreading quickly. It is novel – no one in the world has been exposed to it before. There is no vaccine. It also can be passed by animals to humans and vice versa, specifically birds that migrate all across the world.
It might be a little too on the nose for the time we are living in right now. As unsettling as it can be with the similarities, it was also comforting at times. In Wright’s novel, the same solution they are attempting to find is the same solution we hope to find for COVID-19 – a vaccine. While people are undoubtably suffering from the loss of jobs and economic devastation that COVID-19 has created, the world, for the most part, has held itself together. In Wright’s novel, Kongoli, the virus, hits a lot harder, quicker, and deadlier. The world falls into chaos – roaming bands of gangs, looting, orphanages filled with children whose parents have gone missing or died. At times I found myself thinking, “well, it didn’t happen like that for us.”
If you paid any attention to the role of disease in human affairs, you’d know the danger we’re in. We got smug after all the victories over infection in the twentieth century. But nature is not a stable force. It evolves, it changes, and it never becomes complacent. We don’t have the time or resources now to do anything other than fight this disease. Every nation on earth has to be involved, whether you think of them as friends of enemies. If we’re going to save civilization, we have to fight together and not against each other.
Wright brings more heart into the book by introducing the reader to Henry’s wife Jill and Henry’s kids Teddy and Helen. Jill struggles to keep a normal life for the children without her husband in an uncertain and dangerous world. She feels alone, a feeling that many of us can empathize with right now. The reader also slowly understands that Henry himself holds a lot of secrets and guilt about his past in attempting to control viruses and disease as weapons. Wright also splices the book with minor characters from the government – bureaucratic agents whose mission soon becomes how to save the United States , instead of its citizens. With little to no evidence, many in the government attempt to blame this new virus as a creation of the Russian government – sent to destroy its enemies.
Wright is most known for his nonfiction books like The Looming Tower and Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief. The Looming Tower, a book explaining the events leading up to 9/11, won a slew of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2007. He is also a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Lover of the written word.