Essay: Delving into plague stories

By Holly Calderone

Having spent the entire COVID-19 pandemic engaged in hospice social work, I avoided reading plague stories. But a return from New York to California, with a long layover at O’Hare, were ample time to tear through the two most recent: “Grievers” by Adrienne Maree Brown, and Gary Shteyngart’s “Our Country Friends.” The idea was that the latter be a refreshing absurdist romp following the first rough read. Instead, both came to the same painful conclusion that intellectualizing is no hedge against the existential dilemmas of embodiedness and death. Being there for each other can help.

Brown’s novella is set in Detroit and seems less dystopic than simply true. A plague affecting only Black citizens strikes the city. Its cause is unknown, but the powers that be couldn’t care less because they don’t care about Black people. As a former communicable disease investigator, the youthful queer protagonist Dune is correct that being an object of public health interest is far from being well-taken-care-of. In this case, H-8 syndrome presents as a grief-stricken retarded catatonia and has a 100% mortality rate. Our heroine is thrust into a caregiving role because her Mom is patient zero.

What keeps Dune doing the work is recognizing her power to be there for her people and her city. Integrating the moral legacy of activist parents and grandparents and movement propels the story and her growth as a carer. It is lovely in contemporary literature to read poetic prose around tending the needs of dying bodies: the way those who take in little sustenance have so little excretion. The necessity of assuring the cleanliness and comfort of those who may be too lost in their mind to notice. Or not. Dune’s recognition that her desire to take strangers home is not in her best interest nor theirs.

It is an egoistic altruism that inspires Shteyngart’s Gen X protagonist, comic writer Sasha, to invite his lifelong NYC friends Upstate. The idea is that they will ride out the COVID-19 pandemic together with him and his fellow Russian Jewish immigrant wife, their adopted Chinese daughter, the Actor for whom he is developing a screenplay and a rising star protégé from his professorial years Dee Cameron (yes, really). What begins as a send-up of city-dwellers bringing their own kind of provincialism to village life ends up in real reckonings as the storytellers lose control of their narratives.

The breakdown of personal identity as a form of suffering pales in comparison to the pain of having to bodily feel our emotions. Like Dune, Sasha and his frenemies try to numb themselves with marijuana. But neither weed nor nostalgia, fancy food nor craft cocktails are any match for the devastation American individualism, unrequited love and interpersonal envy has wrought. Returning from the home of newly-minted Hudson Valley culture makers, leaving the boy I had been raising with his Mom, this denouement was viscerally wrenching. Caring and being-cared-for demands humility or it is not caring at all.

“Our Country Friends” ends with not one, but two, romantic love stories and a desire for motherhood fulfilled. Also, professional growth and long-delayed recognition! Still, I prefer “Grievers” and its girl-meets-dog ending. It is more of a beginning. While the novella starts with Dune mourning the break-up of her first love affair, it ends with the recognition that romantic or even familial love cannot be our sole satisfaction. The loner plans on making some friends. And she will be a better friend than Sasha could ever be. Though she has lost more, Dune has experienced love and caring being an end unto itself.

Holly Calderone BS, MSW, is a Sacramento-area health educator and social worker.

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