In the third week of semester I didn’t read anything much, except news updates about the progress of Covid-19 and the likelihood of going into some kind of national lockdown. Turns out watching a global pandemic evolve is fertile ground for a catastrophist environmental novel, but not so great for the concentration.
I did note some ‘stranger than fiction’ aspects that I thought I could use later on in my story, like the monkeys in Thailand overrunning the local town in rioting packs because there are no longer any tourists to feed them (what would this be in NZ, kea? or pigeons). Also the things which make you pause, and consider how surreal it all is, and how serious: the incremental closing down of amenities and infrastructure, and the messaging around it. The scrambling of businesses to adapt to an ever-changing situation and then quickly finding that they can’t – they have to shut completely. The way some people or groups of people can be scared, and cautious, and beginning to accept the new reality and its implications (some of the implications anyway), while at the same time, in the same streets, other people are absolutely oblivious and carrying on as usual, at great risk. There’s such a broad range of ‘realities’ going on at the same time in the face of a major, major threat, and a powerful urge to remain oblivious, or expect it to just stop.
The Plague, Albert Camus
With the end of lockdown approaching, this seemed an appropriate read. The very formal, mannered writing means the way the story is introduced and the way it begins to unfold are quite different from the way I want my novel to be. But I’ve been looking for the way clues are sprinkled, the way foreshadowing is handled (quite bluntly, often) and the way Camus describes the mind-set of the quarantined townspeople. He pits their plain, everyday concerns against the magnitude of the epidemic and the horror of the disease’s reality effectively, and handles the slow, creeping realization of the situation very nicely. I haven’t written enough to go back and tweak it at this stage but I’m keen to sprinkle a few more hints and seemingly irrelevant happenings that point more to what the plastic is doing in my story, early on.
It’s interesting to read Camus’ unpacking of the human response to being forcibly quarantined at home, while I’m living through our own lockdown. I’ve thought a lot lately about the accounts of medieval London I’ve read, where borough councils would board a whole family up in their house with their plaguey relative and leave them to take their chances, and neighbours would break in at night to let them back out. The rich who bought forged ‘health certificates’ that allowed them to travel and get themselves out of London to the clean country air, taking the plague with them. And all the breaches of quarantine that happened when people were faced with the choice of not working and trading, not eating and feeding their family, vs. risking plague. We haven’t changed much, 600 years later.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Hibbs is a Wellington writer completing an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML.