Novels are, inevitably, a reflection of the time and place in which they are written. And so, it is no surprise that now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new genre of literature is emerging.
Last year, the list of novels written (explicitly or tangentially) about the pandemic grew immensely. Ali Smith’s “Summer” weaves the realities of the pandemic into the narrative of the final book in her seasonal quartet. “How High We Go in the Dark” by Sequoia Nagamatsu explores a world ravaged by a new “Arctic plague.” Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, “To Paradise,” partially takes place in a futuristic world dominated by plagues.
It’s a theme that’s certainly having its moment in the literary world. These titles are only a small selection of the many novels released in the past couple of years that revolve around this common theme.
Every time I see one on the shelf in a bookstore or read a review of one, I am faced with the same question: are we ready for this yet?
I can understand the innate desire of writers to process the challenging and traumatic events of the pandemic in the best way they know, but is their audience ready to read it? For myself, the answer is no. It already feels tired and unoriginal, an examination of a world that is too close for us to have any real perspective — and yet, the books keep on coming. Curiosity, eventually, got the better of me.
And so, it was with some trepidation that I dove into my first of the new wave of so-called “pandemic novels.”
I chose “Joan is Okay” by Weike Wang as my introduction to the genre. The book is Wang’s second novel following “Chemistry,” a book which won near-immediate critical acclaim, the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award and Wang a place in the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” list.
Before her decorated career as a novelist, Wang studied chemistry and earned her doctorate in public health. Her novels and short stories are often drawn from this world, exploring the demanding worlds of graduate school or medicine. “Joan is Okay” is no different.
The book centers around Joan, a workaholic doctor in New York City navigating complicated relationships with her parents, her father’s death and recurring challenges with her brother and overbearing next-door neighbor.
In the early pages of the book, the reader is brought into Joan’s world through her eyes — cool and humorously frank. We are introduced to the hospital she tries to spend as much time in as possible, the apartment so sparsely furnished that visitors think that she has either just moved in or is just moving out and the fraught relationship with a mother she both deeply loves and cannot understand. As the story unfolds, we learn that, unlike what the title suggests, Joan is not okay.
This reality lies at the heart of Wang’s novel — a successful but overworking woman at a sort of crossroads. Then spring arrives.
While not an explicitly pandemic novel at first, COVID-19 creeps in around the edges — much as it did in reality during the early months of 2020 — and eventually takes center stage. An already chaotic life is thrown into further uncertainty.
That uncertainty is not resolved over the course of the novel. Honestly, I didn’t think that “Joan is Okay” worked. It was simple, straightforward and uneventful. Characters do not evolve or learn or grow in any meaningful way. While funny at times, it is ultimately static and effectively plotless. When the pandemic was eventually introduced into the story, it felt clunky and unnatural.
Perhaps it is unfair to use one book as the representative of an entirely new wave of literature, especially one I probably wouldn’t have loved even without the pandemic element, but it only reinforced my hesitations surrounding this rising literary fad. It is too soon.
It is not that it is impossible for a pandemic novel to be good, but rather that this may not be the time. As things only just begin to fall back into a rhythm that resembles normalcy, reflections on the pandemic feel underbaked — not afforded nearly enough time to form and reform in the gradual process of genuine reflection.
It is from these limitations that “Joan is Okay” suffers. One day, I imagine I will be able to enjoy a pandemic-related novel, but far more time is needed.
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. His favorite book so far this year is “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie.