People stand and look at supermarket shelves empty before them, as though by looking they will begin to understand what is happening. There is a gap in time where, ordinarily, one would bend and grasp a packet of macaroni or spaghetti which is replaced by mute contemplation. There, in front of us, is something amiss with our everyday lives, and whether we gorge on the news or push it away, the story is told in the lack of bread flour and toilet paper.
Like a poem we are enacting en masse, everything feels poignant. The last packet of red lentils. What “hope you’re well” in an email means. We see anew our own hands in everyday actions of grasping railings and pressing buttons for the bus stop. Actions once small and unthinking suddenly feel uneasily consequential. But like a poem whose author expects the reader to fill in meaning between sentimental imagery – the last day of summer, the first lamb – something unfinished lingers in the air. Nobody knows quite what will unfold, or what their role in it will be.
Feeling frightened but trying not to overreact is a balancing act while we are encouraged into behaviours which feel counter-cultural in uncertain times. For our own safety, the physical gaps between us are growing larger. We are social distancing, instead of embracing and congregating. We say to one another how weird everything is, how eerie everyday life has become, in the absense of more specific words to describe it, while each day grows more unfamiliar still. It seems strange that only four days ago I was wondering whether events in my diary for this week and next might go ahead; now that buildings are closing their doors, announcements coming like dominos, those days of possibility feel like a long time ago.
Last weekend I read Actress by Anne Enright, a novel about a woman named Norah who constructs the memoir of her departed mother Katherine, a beautiful star of midcentury stage and screen who, for the benefit of an American audience, dyed her hair red and played up an Irish persona. The book is an examination of a mother-daughter relationship, and how women can be pushed (in Katherine’s case, by ageing) out of creative careers.
Equally, the novel is an empathetic look at how ideals, Hollywood and otherwise, can fill the gaps in reality, guiding how we behave in all number of situations. Norah’s mother, Katherine, sits at the breakfast table and receives visitors with poise; she breaks the news of Norah’s grandfather’s death “beautifully”.
Flu pandemic fiction
Her everyday acts are inflected with acting, assuming the role of a devoted mother, a grieving daughter, and other feminine archetypes that she both aspires to and is expected to be. She is the flame-haired protagonist of her own life as it unfolds. There is a line about how people’s memories of seeing or meeting her were never described in pedestrian ways, but tinted rosy and meaningful, as though she never walked down a normal street in her life.
In one scene, Norah contemplates her unknown father, filling in the gap with possibilities straight from the fantasy of screen, wondering what qualities they might share. “I took to watching myself as I did normal things.” He might be an airline pilot. Perhaps a scientist ready to stop nuclear disaster.
The book made me think about what we draw on as a way to understand the world around us. The models we might use for a disaster scenario. I picked up Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel recently for the first time, but a novel about a flu pandemic leaving a small percentage of humans behind wasn’t a relaxing read right now.
I’ve pushed its images of ransacked towns and abandoned motorways from my mind as I read the news, but I have also thought of the need to disappear into other worlds, sheltering in the alternate realities of film and books. As characters group together for safety, a travelling troupe of actors and musicians perform Shakespeare. Their motto, painted on the side of the van, is “Survival is insufficient”, an argument for colouring an uncertain existence with art, fantasy, and dreams.
Coronavirus babies and divorces
It has been observed that during war or other strife, there is typically an appetite for light-hearted optimism and escapism, and entertainment to boost morale. I have no doubt, that in a few months’ time, publishers will receive a wave of submissions from those who unearthed works in progress from bottom drawers, using working-from-home time to get on with personal projects, hobbies, and interior hopes and dreams. Tramp Press are already seeing a surge.
Some writers will take inspiration from the pandemic, sketching its details into dystopian futures. Others will build completely alternative worlds to live within. There will also be a lot of poetry filled with vague poignancy, but there is some comfort in knowing that is a perennial thing, and were it not flu-themed, its inspiration would be some other prompt, like heartbreak. Some things are timeless.
Whenever there is fear, relationships are redefined. Some feel more community-minded, busying themselves with whatever they can do to help local food banks and vulnerable neighbours; others withdraw.
There will be coronavirus babies, engagements, and divorces as people fill time, make up for lost time, and reorient their lives in relation to those they’re quarantined alongside.
Understanding of society is also shifting. Citizens reassess the government’s role in providing basic needs. One of the most serious unknowns is not only how each of us will weather the storm but also how the economically at risk will hold onto jobs, pay bills, and rent. Vulnerabilities in the social order have been laid bare, but many are experiencing for the first time a precarity that others have always faced.
The safety nets of some are glass ceilings to others. It’s the ideal time to imagine long-term alternatives.