How Disasters Shape Great Fiction

NB from Diana Belchase: I came upon the delightful Amy L. Bernstein and her book The Potrero Complex.  Her book is sharp and compelling.  Yet, I wondered why she chose to set her story in a pandemic world.  Do we need to hear more about devastating viruses? Amy Bernstein says a resounding, “Yes.” Here is why:

by Amy L. Bernstein

I don’t see why we should let historians have all the fun when it comes to recording the great upheavals that societies endure through the ages.

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Novelists have many tools at their disposal to write their own indelible first drafts of history. And what better crisis to focus on than the Covid pandemic?

Fiction is a great avenue to explore the ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ scenarios that straight history seeks to avoid in favor of a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach.

When I set out to write The Potrero Complex in the early months of the pandemic, I wasn’t interested in recreating our virus-plagued world as we knew it, but in leaping ahead several years to explore the aftermath of a traumatized and diseased world in recovery. What might that look like?

The result is a mystery-thriller that broods on rising inflation, critical labor shortages, and a frightening display of democracy breaking down. Fascism thrives when fear takes hold of a populace—at least, that’s what happens in the world I created. 

At the heart of my story lies a mystery that must be solved, which arises as a direct result of these roiling trends. The book ends on a determined note—but not an especially hopeful fun. In making that choice, I perhaps violated the readers’ desire for a happily-ever-after conclusion, a neat Aristotelian wrap-up that allows one to dust one’s hands and move onto the next book.

But that’s not how I feel about the world. And so that’s not how I’m going to write about it. I’ve offered my own modest first draft of history in The Potrero Complex, and it is not fun or pretty. But that’s what happens when you refuse to look away.

Other writers, far more famous than I, have apparently had the same desire to put their stamp on recent history through a fictional lens.

A Tale from the Decameron painted by John William Waterhouse

Gary Shteyngart borrowed tropes from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a fourteenth-century masterpiece about the Black Death, to produce Our Country Friends, published in 2021, while the Covid pandemic was obviously still ragingIn it, a group of friends and acquaintances gather in a country house in upstate New York to wait out the pandemic. They hunker down for six months, the relationships among them sifting and changing.

Also in 2021, Jodi Picoult released Wish You Were Here, about a woman working at Sotheby’s whose life is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a dangerous virus. An excerpt of the synopsis reads as if it’s lifted from a current news article: “Almost immediately, Diana’s dream vacation goes awry. Her luggage is lost, the Wi-Fi is nearly nonexistent, and the hotel they’d booked is shut down due to the pandemic. In fact, the whole island is now under quarantine, and she is stranded until the borders reopen.”

I realize now I’ve jumped on a bandwagon that’s been around a long time. For centuries, in fact, novelists have assigned themselves the task of contributing a rough first-draft of history through their fiction. Undeterred by rapidly unfolding events such as wars, civil unrest, plagues, and famines, which do not necessarily produce clean story lines, writers rush to make sense of the chaos in their midst.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Émile Zola embarked upon an ambitious cycle of novels, Les Rougon-Macquart, which traced the history of a single family living under the reign of Napoléon III. Zola wrote several novels as a form of running commentary on life under Napoléon, who ruled as president and emperor of France roughly between 1850 and 1870—practically a third of Zola’s life. One of Zola’s novels within the cycle, L’Assommoirwas a study of alcoholism and poverty in working-class Paris—a thoroughly contemporary portrait of society as he saw and heard it. I believed I attempted to get through L’Assommoir in French during college, and what I gleaned was chilling.

Emile Zola 1902 courtesy of Wikipedia

In the first part of the twentieth century, the astute critic and novelist Rebecca West penned a novel in 1918, The Return of the Soldier. Viewed at the time as the first notable novel about World War I written by a woman, the story concerned a shell-shocked, amnesiac soldier returning from war in the hopes of being reunited with his first love. There is no getting around the fact that West was inventing a story ripped right from the headlines, even as those headlines were still being written.

I’ve long adored fiction written between the wars, drawn, perhaps, by the immediacy of the stories that were written while there was still blood on the battlefields.

Responding to the loud and messy developments that make for sensational newspaper headlines is not the only way novelists have processed history. Many writers focus on the social and cultural values of their time, offering pointed commentaries through their fiction. They are historians of manners, in a sense. Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, about small-town life, and Dodsworth, about how the upper-crust lives, come to mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald offered astute, up-close renderings of wealth and its corrupting influences. He was a novelist-cum-ethnographer, refracting contemporary culture through a burning lens.

All of which brings us to today, an era that can perhaps best be described as offering an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing a subject for a novel. 

And thus, the era of pandemic (or post-pandemic) fiction, is born. Like it or not, it’s a subject ripe for exploration (and exploitation) in almost any genre, from mystery to comedy, family saga to science fiction.

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Many readers and literary agents have made it clear they do not want to read fiction that keeps them rooted in the real world right now. Specifically, they do not want to read another word about pandemics. They wish to escape, and that is understandable. It’s a big reason we turn to novels in the first place—to escape to worlds and characters as far removed from us as possible.

I get it. But we also read to interpret and make sense of the world we presently live in. Many readers (I among them) crave the kind of fiction that holds reality up to a magic mirror that enables me to see how things really are, a bit more clearly than I might otherwise.

I’ve tried to hold up that mirror in The Potrero Complex, in part by following the logic of where a devastating and deadly pandemic might lead society. Ironically, only time (and history) will reveal whether I hit the mark or simply wrote another made-up story that is anything but a rough first draft of history.

What cannot be denied, however, is that the history of literature is littered with the history of history—or a compelling version of it, anyway. I maintain we should expect nothing less from fiction writers in any era.

Amy L. Bernstein writes stories that let readers feel while making them think. Her novels include The Potrero Complex, The Nighthawkers, Dreams of Song Times, and Fran, The Second Time Around. Amy is an award-winning journalist, speechwriter, playwright, and certified nonfiction book coach. When not glued to a screen, she loves listening to jazz and classical music, drinking wine with friends, and exploring Baltimore’s glorious neighborhoods, which inspire her fiction.

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