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Post-Pandemic Literature and the Promise of America’s Future

Post-Pandemic Literature and the Promise of America’s Future

Michael Cunningham and Sloane Crosley prove the book may be the only way forward from our COVID malaise.

As recently as 2019, the running joke in film festival programming circles was that staff would make any kind of bargain with the devil to stop the steady flow of movies featuring twentysomethings talking about life in their apartments, an organic genre that, at times, could account for 70 percent of submissions. 

But, like the rest of us, such discerning gatekeepers didn’t see COVID coming. While these tastemakers spent the last four years trying to course correct in the aftermath of largely self-inflicted damage, they’ve also had to contend with an onslaught of pandemic content. Yet, unlike the rarest of postgrad dramedies that actually showed some chops, the fruits of COVID are uniformly abysmal. “No one wants to revisit that time,” I’ve often heard. “We all lived it.”

These comments are supposed to touch on the collective trauma we’d like to suppress. But, in truth, they're more about our tendencies toward collective narcissism. COVID didn’t lead to a new normal; it was the ideal catalyst that exacerbated the symptoms of cultural decline waiting in the margins.

When Notre Dame caught fire the year before, photos of people on their past Paris vacations clogged social media for days. During the previous epoch-defining event of our nation, the terrorists weren’t content with the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Every point of interest from the Gateway Arch to Dinosaur Adventure was now in the crosshairs. We all longed to insert ourselves into the tragedies that gripped the world. But when the world offered up an equal-opportunity tragedy, no one knew how to deal with it. Only a select few have that cathedral selfie or a cousin’s former babysitter living in Tribeca. Now, everyone can have a mask and a cough of questionable origins. 

And the ensuing embarrassment is too hard to bear. COVID content isn’t good because it reminds us of the erratic behavior we can only partially chalk up to lack of information: the one-way grocery aisles, the Clorox wiping of takeout, the social distancing mania that cut down millions of BBQs but carved out an exception for mass protests. We know it was mostly bullshit even if legacy media is only now making what they previously deemed conspiracy theories front-page news. But we also can’t take personal accountability for succumbing to mass hysteria. Our allegiance to self-care and tribal conformity wouldn’t allow it.

The problem with art in the time of post-pandemicism is that culture-making has always been fueled by individualism and human connection. These are traits fundamentally at odds with blanket directives from amorphous authority figures that have marked global life since 2020. COVID stories simply don’t lend themselves well to movies and television (much less the theatre) because the success of both relies on communicating through facial expressions and movement. Regardless of the medium, the visual arts lack the interiority and capacity to accurately capture the real-world implications of a policy agenda that forces the suppression of the individual in the name of purportedly saving individual lives.

For most of the pandemic, the written word found itself captive to the same regurgitated talking points and hot takes, one of the reasons that the books rushed out that summer by authors as singular as Zadie Smith are the only real misfires on their CVs. Writing is about reflection. That’s an impossible task when succumbing to fear while resting on unearned moral authority and reputation. But, as new work from two of American Letters' most prominent authors shows, the book is the genre most equipped to handle the type of introspection needed to chronicle life in the aftermath of COVID.

Michael Cunningham has spent the majority of his career engaged in lofty meta appropriations of classic literature. He undertook Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in 1998's The Hours, and pays tribute to Walt Whitman in 2005’s Specimen Days. However, in his recent novel, Day, he attempts to rewrite the pandemic by way of domestic fiction. 

Rather than opt for a sprawling COVID story, Cunningham structures the book in three parts, each detailing April 5th in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The central focus is on Dan and Isabel, a fortysomething couple whose purchase of a Brooklyn brownstone is the only remotely impressive thing about their middle-creative-class existence. She works in print magazine photography. He is a faded Gen X musician who almost broke big and can’t reconcile that he’s now really just a stay-at-home dad. Besides the kids, the only thing keeping them together is Isabel’s brother Robbie, a successful med school applicant with a heart condition living in the attic who couldn’t handle the stress and became an elementary school teacher instead. Along for the ride are Dan’s brother Garth, a semi-prominent artist who makes metalwork based on Shakespeare, and Chess, the Columbia women’s lit professor for whom he served as a sperm donor. 

Of course, COVID changes everything. Except that it doesn’t. Cunningham’s book is so potent because his observational tack reveals the myth of pandemic disintegration. The seeds for these characters’ undoing were sown long ago. As he writes of Dan in the pre-2020 days, “He’s had the anger leached out of him by his own jokingly hardy embrace of the disappointments, along with his hopes for a future that still lies ahead.” 

A professor of creative writing at Yale, Cunningham also has firsthand knowledge of higher ed’s eroding landscape, which the pandemic only deepened. “Her students tend to be interested in the end of things, particularly those that should not have existed in the first place,” he writes during a harrowing scene of Chess trying to discuss Edith Wharton with her students in the spring of 2019. 

What makes Day so adroit at diagnosing the problems of our current moment is Cunningham’s choice to write a book about characters in a pandemic rather than the pandemic itself. He goes out of his way to avoid the low-hanging symbolic fruit of masks and toilet paper. The central question the book poses is what happens when people are forced to be alone with themselves, to confront the meaninglessness of the status symbols and posturing they have adapted? They may become soon-forgotten viral celebrities like Dan or abandon their marriages. But they come to terms with who they are, the pandemic lesson most of us have yet to learn. 

Though novelist and brutal essayist of human folly Sloane Crosley didn’t set out to write a pandemic memoir or a self-help book, Grief is for People, ends up being a bit of both thanks to fate upending the author’s life. A former publicist at Random House before her 2008 essay collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake turned her into the toast of New York’s literati, Crosley endured dual tragedies in the seemingly pastoral days of 2019 when a burglary led her to lose all of her family’s heirloom jewelry and her best friend and former boss hung himself with no warning.

Those familiar with Crosley’s trademark brand of sardonic wit and self-deprecation may wonder how she would tackle experiences so personal, especially since her previous essays position her as the early millennial female heir to Larry David. But Crosley manages to keep her introspection while directing her acidic barbs at a world around her already obsessed with its own minor traumas before COVID may or may not have leaked from the lab. She takes aim at an acquaintance “multitasking a condolence call” while bottling artisanal vinegar and the ill-advised words of comfort from those around her who are even remotely aware of her situation. Her opinion of the Gen Z rookie who filed a bogus HR complaint against her now-dead friend begins and ends with, “Her voice was soft and ingratiating, likely forged by years of leaving voice mails for professors, requesting extensions.” 

Crosley concludes, “People hide behind violation because it eliminates the hierarchy of loss in their favor.” It’s a line that, more than anything written about the pandemic, captures the motivations behind the militant mask policing and vaxx-card carrying that fractured friendships and tore through our entire social fabric. At the same time, she’s not too keen on letting herself and fellow New Yorkers off easy: “We let go of so much so quickly. Really lost the plot. Within weeks, New York, which epitomizes such an embarrassment of freedoms in the global imagination, had become a white-collar prison. Was there anything so wrong in any given moment? No. Was everything an unmitigated disaster? Yes.” 

Four years later, most of life still seems like an unmitigated disaster. We’ve moved on without demanding accountability from the companies we patronize or the connections in our lives who refuse to admit they went off the deep end. Such entities and individuals don’t deserve to be demonized. But they do deserve to be the subjects of a national conversation–not just about what went wrong but also the decade of lead-up that could well put us on course for a point of no return. Neither Cunningham nor Crosley offer up the definitive word on the matter, but we should be thankful that they are the first to wade into the conversation in a manner that never sacrifices artistry for “we’re in this together" platitudes.