It happened last night in class. As one of my students read from her work in progress – a contemporary novel—something struck me, so I turned back to the first page and circled the year.
We can’t approach this year like any other. With us all social distancing, with thousands dying and even more afflicted with COVID-19, novels that take place during this year can’t simply move forward as though nothing had happened. Writers will either need to go back in time – place the novel one or two years ago and pretend that the characters were as ignorant of what awaited us as we truly were – or take on the pandemic head on.
Frankly, I’m not certain anyone is capable of encompassing this situation yet. We don’t know when it’s going to end. This summer? Next fall? Two years from now?
We don’t know how it’s going to affect the world at large. Will the global economy fall into an international depression? Will the Internet collapse under the weight of all our Zoom calls? Will vast tracts of the population be decimated?
Will our world lapse into the Hunger Games-style dystopias our younger students read and write about so avidly?
And then there’s the sudden strangeness of writing a story in which people are allowed to touch, to get together in large groups, to eat in restaurants and go to concerts and plays. One of my other writers did this in last week’s class. She took us to a dim sum restaurant, to a show in a New York theater. We walked the dirty, crowded streets with her characters. She portrayed hugs and handshakes, dirty fingers and face touching. A sense of nostalgia lingered in these pages – a longing for the day when we could head back to these normal activities.
Will they still feel normal a year from now?
I’m grateful in many ways to be a historical novelist. I love delving into a past where I know the outcome. I consciously have to remind myself that my characters don’t know that outcome even if I do. But because I do know, I can write with a sense of foreshadowing, of symbolism. I know how to plot a story in which the world follows a particular path.
We’ve now lost any assumption of knowing what’s coming next. 2020 is not predicable anymore. And all of those contemporary plot lines are sheltering at home with us.