I confess to enjoying some end of the world novels, specifically the ones where people join together to survive. But my enjoyment was always backed up by a deep belief “It can’t happen here.” Well, spoke too soon again. So now I find myself thinking of plague novels that I can remember reading.
As an immature undergraduate I read Albert Camus’s The Plague. The stripped down plot is a doctor experiencing a plague in Algeria. It is a very dark story, with lots of confusion and death. At the time I took that to be the sign of great literature. And even then, the most confusing part to me was how it fit in with the French existential philosophy. There was, as I recall, more than one young man eager to tell me why what I thought was incorrect and why I really didn’t understand Camus or Sartre at all. I am sure they were right. But I do remember thinking Camus was the best writer of the bunch. And I may have been correct, because I am now finding out plagues are dark, confusing, and leave me feeling I lack a lot of information. If you missed reading Camus now is a good time, and with any luck you will have matured enough to understand a lot more than I did.
Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is the other plague book my memory keeps bringing up. This is one of her time travel stories. Time travel supervised by a history department that tries hard to maintain high standards of observation without interference or exploitation. The fails are what her stories focus on. Sometimes hilarious fails, and sometimes dark and confusing fails.
This book has two parallel stories. The contemporary history department where a flu is raging sets the stage. People are falling victim to the fever, chills, and symptoms that keep them at home instead of closely supervising a young student sent back for a brief project to answer an obscure question. The meat of the story is our student, sent back in error to the height of what would come to be called the Black Plague. Her efforts to return to the university all fail. She is an unwilling observer of a plague in action. And yes, it is a dark and confusing tale. Full of people who just don’t have enough information or opportunity to take effective actions. I highly recommend reading the Doomsday Book. Then follow it up with the much shorter book, To Say Nothing of the Dog. We all deserve the fun of reading this book. Especially when we are caught in a plague.
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