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Reliving the pandemic — five new ‘vi-fi’ novels inspired by Covid-19

Reliving the pandemic — five new ‘vi-fi’ novels inspired by Covid-19
Blue Ruin by Hari Kunzru, released 16 May. I Fourteen Days by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston, released 6 February I Dear Dickhead by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne, released in September.

These titles, with themes such as isolation and addiction, introduce readers to a new Covid generation of authors.

Vi-fi, short for virus fiction, describes contemporary fiction that features the devastating events of world-­changing outbreaks and epidemics. Rooted in science fiction, vi-fi draws on bio-thrilling realism and parallel worlds with multiple, dystopian possibilities.

Since 2020 there has been an exponential rise in vi-fi by a new Covid generation of authors who came out of isolation having experienced a pandemic in real time.

We present a podcast, Pandemic Pages, about the latest in pandemic fiction, and here are five books about Covid we’ll be looking out for this year:

Day by Micheal Cunningham

Day by Michael Cunningham, released 18 January

Published 25 years after his literary masterpiece, The Hours, Cunningham’s new book, Day, taps into the Covid genre’s sense of a distortion of time.

The plot recounts the troubles of married couple Dan and Isabel and their children, Nathan and Violet, and Isabel’s younger wayward brother, who lives a secret life on Instagram in the attic, as they navigate the pressures of lockdown in a brownstone townhouse in Brooklyn.

The narrative is built around the events of three separate days, each a year apart. The first is just as the pandemic is about to hit in 2019, the second during the middle of the lockdown in 2020, and the third as they are coming out of the lockdown in April 2021.

Covid is never mentioned by name, but the narrative promises tumultuous themes of incarceration and isolation, the extremely difficult accommodations that families had to make, and the ways that so much is left unspoken between people.

Fourteen Days by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston, released 6 February

This much-anticipated collaborative pandemic novel is inspired by Italian Renaissance writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s book The Decameron (1353) and a short story collection by The New York Times called The Decameron Project (2020).

Beginning in the first week of lockdown in March 2020, the narrative takes place in a run-down New York City apartment complex where tenants share stories on the rooftop.

The book features different chapters written by A-list authors such as Emma Donoghue (Pull of the Stars), John Grisham, Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) and Weike Wang (Joan Is Okay).

The book vows to be packed with secrets, ghost tales and sensational revelations from self-isolation when the residents’ outlook on their situation is forever altered by the story of the newest, anonymous tenant: the Super.

Blue Ruin by Hari Kunzru, released 16 May

Kunzru’s portrait of the pandemic is tipped to be the most gripping Covid-noir novel yet.

Twenty years after graduating from a London art school, Jay is working as a delivery driver in New York in 2020. Having just returned to work after the first lockdown, he unknowingly collapses on the porch of an enormous mansion in the middle of a remote woodland. There, his former lover from art school, Alice, is living with Rob, the man she left him for, who was also his former best friend, as well as with Marshal, a gallery owner, and his girlfriend.

Exhausted with sickness, Jay is confronted by the personal history he has tried to shove into the rear-view mirror. But this chance encounter in the middle of lockdown begins to unravel the secrets of his darkly destructive past, with fateful consequences.

Dear Dickhead by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne, released in September

Dubbed “a French punk on the literary scene” and the “literary Balzac”, Virginie Despentes – who was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018 for her novel Vernon Subutex 1 – takes on #MeToo, Covid and social media cancel culture in her new book.

A writer threatened by the public scrutiny of his “flirtations” with women, Oskar Jayack, finds himself at the centre of Instagram hate when he rants on social media about the 50-year-old declining actress, Rebecca Latte, blaspheming her in a string of brutal insults that denigrates her as a dirty, worn-out, loud old woman.

Despentes uses email exchanges between the characters, but the author’s real message comments on a string of modern social problems: transphobia, addiction, abuse and the effects of Covid policies.

Real Americans by Rachel Khong, published 30 April

Khong’s take on the popular genre of generational saga ushers us into the past, across three continents and on to a post-pandemic Washington island.

This is an expansive social novel about the lives of three members of a Chinese American family, spanning 70 years: May (who we meet in 2030), Lily (in 2000) and Nick Chen (in 2021).

Nick is only 15, but he can’t help feeling that his mother, Lily, is hiding something from him. The only thing Nick knows about himself is that his dad is white and has never wanted to be in his life. He sets out to search for his biological father and get some answers.

Khong queries modern concerns through questions that plague her cast of characters. How much of our lives come from a spark of chance? Are we destined, or made, and if so, who gets to do the making? What makes a real American? DM 

First published by The Conversation.

Lucyl Harrison is a PhD candidate in the School of Humanities at the University of Hull; Catherine Wynne is an associate dean for research and enterprise in the Faculty of Arts, Cultures and Education at the University of Hull.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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