Last month, I rewatched Outbreak and Contagion. I was searching for the same scab-picking pleasure as everyone else who vaulted them to the Netflix Top 10. Instead, I caught exasperated despair. When Google only brought up articles on how “strikingly realistic” they are, and I discovered even Barry Jenkins likes Contagion, I added to my bad mood that specific irritation of learning no one on the Internet agrees with you.
All these films offer is solace for a bygone era. Even cineplex blockbusters—that most global and sturdy of comforts— offer no balm for life under COVID-19.
The pandemic blockbuster lives by a code. First, it must open with montages of delighted gore, the bodies of mostly black and East Asian actors riddled with sores, spectacular pustules, cascading mouth foam, rubbed-raw skin. In Contagion, there are two white women who get this treatment, but they at least have the decency to die in private homes, unlike a Chinese and a Japanese man who expire inconsiderately (also inexplicably?) in the streets. In Outbreak, people go from healthy to dead in thirty hours. If you catch the disease, so will everyone for the next three city blocks. You will all die. There is such enjoyment in how the disease is photographed and CGIed. These creators are revelling in the smug joy that a virus capable of capsizing society would have to be diabolical, ear-splitting: a worthy opponent to an indomitable empire.
When we enjoy the sight of blistered eyeballs, what we are really enjoying is the fantasy of our own strength. In real life, all it takes to stop everything is something that looks, at first, like an awful cold. One of coronavirus’s most gruesome lessons is how vulnerable we all are, within the jerry-rigged scheme of late capitalism. The empire is made of plastic. All day long our minds accept this idea and reject it, cycling through grief. On a group video chat, one of my friends suddenly bursts out: I’m just getting really annoyed we have to spray everything. A woman on the street brushes my leg with her suitcase; back home, I have to lock my weeping toddler outside the bathroom, while I figure out how to remove my leggings without touching them, whispering to myself, This is stupid. Even if all around us, for decades, there’ve been blatant symptoms our labor system is rotting, we’ve kept on through the day, we’ve had faith, we’ve bought lottery tickets, by denying the reality the virus has now brought inside our door.
Next, the pandemic blockbuster must claim a plague has uniform stakes for everyone: life or death, no attendant complexities. There are no restaurant workers watching everything they have evaporate in the space of a weekend, no parents desperate to feed their kids once schools close, no first-generation college students evicted with nowhere to go, no engineers days from start-up funding and now applying to drive for Amazon. Outside the movie theater, a pandemic is intricately disastrous. Much has been made of writers like Roxane Gay and Shea Serrano using Twitter to pay the bills of those in dire straits. The pleas for help on Serrano’s timeline are a lesson in the endlessly creative nature of exploitation: I’m 74 and I’m scared to go to the store and the grocery delivery site charged me hidden fees; I’m behind on my student loans and here’s a gym contract for a quarter of my rent that I can never get out of; I’m a contract professor already in poverty and I can’t afford my insulin.
The virus has punctured the dream that any built item in our world just wondrously appears, in our stores or on our screens. Instead, like the casing coming off an enormous clock, we see how our way of life relies on millions of people, working together. Like cogs in that clock, tipping over the edge of a cliff.
Finally, the pandemic blockbuster must resolve, and this is its most useless trait. It always ends the same way—in Outbreak and Contagion, but even in clever, deft stories with a greater understanding of geopolitics, like 28 Days Later and World War Z. The vaccine is found. Everyone exhales. Credits roll.
But the containment of the virus is not the end. That’s only where our troubles begin. A vaccine will be found, but COVID-19 has surfaced every social ill we’ve tried to silence: gender violence, prison conditions, racism and racial inequity, the treatment of migrant workers, the homelessness epidemic, the miserable precarity of people who thought they were doing fine under capitalism. A vaccine can’t delete the irreparable harm done by this disaster, especially not the harm that was already happening, under the skin.
The role of narrative is to help us sort out our circumstances, to illuminate a pattern that makes meaning of seemingly meaningless events. But can stories do that if we are living in a state of anguish beyond the comprehension of their sewn-up neatness, in this untangleable mess we’re in?
In 2018 I published a novel that begins with a pandemic, one that wipes out (among other things) 93 percent of the southern United States. My story concerns Galveston, seventeen years later. I thought I was being smart, unpicking the long-term structural impact of a virus, not the ya-basic territory of its eruption. I wanted to explore how an outbreak could act like a lever, cranking wide the cracks in the social strata. That had to be better than Contagion’s proto-Trumpist instinct to hand blame to Chinese cooks, municipal governments, and desperate web journos—anyone but people with real power. When my plot turned toward migrant workers, the story evolved into a novel of ideas masquerading as sci-fi. I wanted to say migration is not “a faceless brown mass” —it is a surreal, otherworldly experience that extracts the immigrant from time, and forces her to ask herself the most profound questions of existence.
And yet, I made the same mistakes as the pandemic blockbuster. I based my virus on Ebola, insisting it’d take a Satanic blood-weeping pestilence to knock us off course. And I put my characters, a bartender and an upholsterer, in elaborate jeopardy to make them vulnerable: I stranded them far from home, I collapsed the credit card companies, I gave one the flu, and then I separated them, irrevocably.
I couldn’t conceive that no big drama is needed to render working people choiceless. All that has to happen is for commerce to stop, for four, five, six days.
It’s tempting to call this a failure of imagination on my part, on the part of the pandemic blockbuster. But it’s something more banal, and so more frightening: it’s a failure of attention. In the event of a disaster, the system, just as it is designed, is enough to suffocate millions to death.
Our popular stories are failing us because, like our other institutions, they were conceived that way. A machine that thrives on literal drama cannot animate something like COVID-19, a plain illness without froth or pus, devastating in its silence.
In the past four or five years, since empathy has come into heavy vogue, we’ve started championing stories, heralding their virtues in the key of a political campaign. Stories are healing, because stories are a breeding ground for empathy. But this platitudish notion elides how stories function by raining trauma on their characters; empathy is generated only as a response to great torment, by a writer doing bad things to unsuspecting characters, or making them do bad things. You only have to study a serialized protagonist to see this is true. If Veronica Mars weren’t the central character of a TV show, she would’ve long ago moved to New York and become a lawyer. Instead, she keeps returning to the dysfunctional hometown she hates. If she doesn’t, the story has to end. If The Handmaid’s Tale were to decide to stop torturing Offred, there wouldn’t be another season.
This might be why the pandemic blockbuster—like any film imagining apocalypse—has everyday people acting with irrational violence: looting, murdering, etc. One of our pandemic’s most moving features is how quickly so many have quietly made great sacrifices to stop the spread. But in Outbreak, a family tries to outrun quarantine by blasting a shotgun at an army helicopter. Mothers laden with babies assault doctors in hazmat suits.
I wrote a pandemic novel centered on migration and I put my characters through persecution and catastrophe. The book came out the same week that news broke of family separations at the US border. Suddenly, we were awash in headlines telling the true stories of migrants experiencing unspeakable suffering. The months passed, and this abhorrent situation did not resolve; it goes on still. Even as I keep teaching my students that stories need conflict, I’ve grown perplexed about the ethics of abusing characters to drive a narrative arc. This can sound like ridiculous hand-wringing: characters are not people. Yet we are responsible for everything we put into the world, and in a world that teems with human suffering, actual or imagined, layered or simplified and dramatized, I’ve added to the pile.
Next, I want to write a crime novel. But I’m stuck. I can’t figure out how to do it without traumatizing the characters, and I’ve lost my stomach for pain.
There is a plague movie that might make sense of our lives under COVID-19. My preferred pandemic blockbuster of the Outbreak era was actually 12 Monkeys. Like the others, it hasn’t aged well. Instead the movie I’m thinking of is the one that inspired it: La Jetée.
La Jetée is certainly not a blockbuster. It’s a thirty-minute experimental feature, mostly seen by film undergrads, and the word “movie” is a loose descriptor: it’s a series of stills that pass across the screen, sometimes slow, and sometimes slower.
But the plot has a certain action-film verve. A prisoner in post-apocalyptic Paris is enlisted to time-travel to the future and the past, to ask for aid. Meanwhile, he is haunted by an image from his childhood that he recalls but does not know the meaning of: “the frozen sun, the setting at the end of the jetty, and a woman’s face.”
The film’s big reveal is that collapse is inevitable, built-in. Things were always bad. And this is helpful. Finally, a tale that captures our current reality.
La Jetée has something else to give. Its construction offers reprieve. Its quilt of photographs says we have the stills, the moments from our lives that are preserved in their loveliness, no matter what pattern, meaning, story, we impose on them. Even in this post-apocalyptic nightmare, there are good things. There is the face of someone who loves us, turning toward us, the wind lifting their hair.