Almost as soon as it appeared, Covid-19 seeded a peculiar and deep dread of the literature it might someday inspire. “Novel coronavirus” — in the literary sense — already conjures contempt and exhaustion, but why? What do we fear? Limp attempts at parody? Schematic sci-fi? Autofictional accounts of quarantine in Brooklyn in which the pandemic serves as backdrop to the personal epiphany of an alienated protagonist who discovers the virtues of the simpler life, via much massaging of dough and theoretical jargon? (Yes.)
The conversation obscures the fact that there is already a predominant genre, in full sway — in the flourishing of first-person narratives, the innumerable pandemic diaries in every discipline. Artists paint the views from their windows; war photographers stuck at home train their lenses on their kitchen tables and the bodies of their children at play. An e-book, “Wuhan Diary,” was published this week, covering 76 days of quarantine in the epicenter of the outbreak. Writers emote like it’s 2015 again, the heyday of the personal essay. Here’s What I Cooked, they share. Here’s What I Wore, What I Long For.
Such accounts — many banal, at best — turn interesting, even significant, when read together and regarded as a wave of testimony. The writers are an unusually cocooned bunch, safely distant from the world of layoffs, mass graves, Zoom funerals. (It’s only more recently that we’ve seen first-person accounts by subway workers, paramedics, ER doctors and nurses.) Their quarantines are, on the surface, bucolic interludes laced with light anxiety; panic is sieved through Instagram’s tidy grid of artful domesticity, simmering bone broth, early bluebells and the first fledglings spied on solitary walks. The uncertainty of the tone is what makes these pieces oddly moving, the damp childlike fright that creeps through resolve. Together, they represent a struggle in real time to give language to a set of emotions that are, as yet, painfully nameless.
Any effort at naming is an ungainly process, and begins with metaphor — what does this moment recall? The isolation of quarantine is compared to everything from living in wartime or as a refugee to being friendless at work. The hazy quality of time evokes the postpartum months or aimless afternoons of childhood. It replicates the solitude of wilderness, the cloister, coping with chronic illness. To Lorrie Moore it resembles “a zombie apocalypse”; to Donald Antrim, an episode of major depression. Ottessa Moshfegh described it as “doing time.” (The incarceration metaphor is so common, it elicited an exasperated response from Angela Davis. “As someone who was once really in lockdown, we can’t minimize the experience of people in prisons,” she said in an interview. “It is not what we’re experiencing in our homes today.”) Jamaica Kincaid has compared it to a version of afterlife: “It’s as if we are dead and somehow have been given the unheard-of opportunity to see the life we lived, the way we lived it.”
So few of these metaphors satisfy — they’re heightened, meager, inappropriate — but there is something stirring in their awkwardness, in seeing a new phenomenon slip the net of ready-made language. The novelist Jamie Quatro, writing in the New York Review of Books’s “Pandemic Journals,” opens her curtains one morning and wonders if she’s looking at snowflakes or cherry blossoms. Why can’t she tell — and why doesn’t the season seem to matter?) Nick Laird, writing in the same series: “My daughter shouts at my son, my son shouts at my daughter, and then I shout at both of them. There is a manic quality to the time. It is like being on acid or crazed from lack of sleep.”
These could be outtakes from “Alice in Wonderland,” set in another strange month of May. How many times had I read the book before I noticed, only this week, why Alice follows the rabbit? It isn’t that he speaks, or is so nattily dressed. It’s his watch. “When the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet.” The defining feature of Wonderland is its eeriness of time and scale — the hours move unpredictably, time itself can be threatened with murder or cajoled to speed up.
Pandemic diaries are not merely documents of a particular time but documents of entering into a particular, altered relationship with time. Some of us have become “billionaires of time,” as Katherine Sharpe writes in n+1, describing her “slow-simmering crock pot of envy” toward the childless, “the kind of people who are the intended audience for the recent gush of articles advising them on what to read, watch, cook or how otherwise to while away the endless expanse of their time in quarantine.”
There are the paupers of time, too — the sick, the vulnerable, the caregivers — pinched and frenzied. Everyone is out of sync, jet-lagged in ordinary life, untethered to ordinary time while also being obsessively clock-struck. In quarantine, “time itself is the task,” as Kierkegaard wrote, and counting the order of the day. How long has that package been disinfecting outside — two days or three? When was that doorknob last disinfected? When will the check arrive? When did her symptoms abate? How much longer like this?
To describe the passage of time has always been one of the favorite challenges of the writer or philosopher. “Where is it, this present?” William James wondered. “It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.” In Nabokov’s “Ada; Or Ardor,” the heroine declares: “We can never know Time. Our senses are simply not meant to perceive it.” The mysteries of time are bound up in the great unknowns of the body and universe, from consciousness to black holes. But we’ve always reached for it, attempted to fix time, in language or theory, to possess it, reclaim it from the white rabbit. In a moment of uncertainty, what else can we do but grasp at the time we have and can perceive, how beautifully ordinary is this desire, how reassuring even our failure, as it slips away.