When I read about the coronavirus in Wuhan last week, I immediately thought of the opening pages of Emily St. John Mandel’s haunting novel about a post-pandemic world, Station Eleven. Jeevan Chaudhary is walking home from a disastrous evening at the theater, where the lead actor playing King Lear died, for real, on stage. As he makes his way through the city, news of the Georgian flu rises in waves around him. His friend who is a doctor calls him on his cellphone to tell him about the contagion sweeping the globe. “You remember the SARS epidemic?” Hua asks. “You have to get out of the city,” he tells Jeevun.
Soon, life as Jeevun knew it is radically and permanently revised. Mandel lets her imagination loose as she lists the lost things in an emptied-out, shut-down world where commerce, technology and communication have ground to a primordial halt. From the chapter titled “An Incomplete List,” I’ve chosen some of the lost things that resonate most with me:
“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more pharmaceuticals. No more flight. No more fire departments, no more police. No more internet. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in doing so, feeling slightly less alone in the room.”
It’s always strange when things happening in the real world conjure memories constructed by fictional events, but I happened to be traveling to New York over the weekend as news of the coronavirus spread and kept thinking about what could happen based on what Mandel had imagined in her book. As my plane took off for New York, I remembered the scene in Station Eleven when the last airplane ever took flight, disappearing from view and uncertain to ever land. As I sat near people wearing face masks at the airport, I felt my anxiety rising – were they sick or just taking precautions? Was I wise or foolish to stay where I was, my face exposed? What if things escalated as quickly as they had in Station Eleven, and I could not get home to my husband and children?
I thought about these many possibilities as my plane deftly dodged clouds and landed early. Once on the ground, I refreshed my news feed to check on the situation in Wuhan. It seemed like every time I looked away and then looked back at the news, the story grew and changed. It was as if the author was letting her imagination run freely – but there was no author and this was no fiction, just plain old reality in all its confusion.
Laguardia was not crowded, as it usually is. The sky that day was clear and blue, and it was unseasonably warm for late January. Standing in the taxi line, I thought about the marvel of an ordinary day in the moment of its ordinariness. The morning of 9/11 flooded me then – it was a bright blue day in New York and my husband had just left our apartment. I was out of the shower and dressing for school. We were 27 years old, neither of us anything much to the world but both of us a great deal to each other. The phone that was plugged into the wall rang, and it was my sister Lisa. She was calling from Washington to tell me to turn on the news. I did, and what I saw changed everything, at least for a while.
Today, the World Health Organization will decide whether to declare the coronavirus an international public health emergency. People are being quarantined, travelers are being screened, flights are being cancelled, and borders are being closed. The future of this outbreak is uncertain at this time, as it was for Jeevun in the early days of the Georgia flu. I know better than to conflate the future with the past and fact with fiction, but I can’t deny the power of a well-told story, regardless of whether it is wholly, partially, or not at all true. If you haven’t read Station Eleven, you might want to – not because it can tell you anything about what’s to come, but because it may push you to take a long, loving look what is happening right now. If you’re lucky, everything is completely and marvelously ordinary.