Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Viral Literature in Time

Thomas Allen

“In YOU the Virus of TIME began!” So declares the Angel to Prior Walter in Tony Kushner’s 1992 play Perestroika (part two of Angels in America). When Prior receives this message, he finds himself, like many of us today, entrapped in a strange interregnum in which the normal, quotidian passage of time appears to have ceased. Abandoned by his partner after having been infected by a potentially deadly virus, Prior spends his time in near-isolation in his bedroom before the sudden visitation of the Angel, who commands him to become a prophet of stasis: to stop time, because history is unbearable. This command feels ironic given that, as those of us who are distancing during the current pandemic will immediately recognize, Prior is already outside of time—or at least time as we customarily understand it. It turns out that temporal situatedness depends upon our interactions with others. When we don’t leave the house, we start to forget what day of the week it is. The atemporality that the Angel tasks Prior with spreading is one that he already unwillingly inhabits.

If time is a virus, then time is threatening, mysterious, and out of our control. It reproduces exponentially, accelerating the rate at which it sickens and kills its host organisms—us. In fiction, such an experience of time often leads to narrative situations filled with dramatic action and significant moral choices—as in Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, whose heroic scientists race around the globe battling the virus and the multiplying plot complications that it induces. For most of us, however, that the experience of time in a pandemic is not like that. Instead, it is primarily an experience of waiting—even for those who are sick, who, like Prior, can only hope to get better. Our relationship to time becomes a passive one. In this sense, Prior’s confrontation with the Angel echoes the involuntary memories of Proust’s fictionalized alter-ego Marcel and the “rememories” that haunt Morrison’s Sethe. All of these literary protagonists find themselves unnervingly displaced from the chronos of their own stories as time itself becomes the protagonist.

In developing this theme of temporal displacement, Kushner’s viral narrative represents a turning point in the genre. In an earlier tradition, which extends back as far as the mid twentieth-century beginnings of the science of virology (as Priscilla Wald has shown in her book Contagious), the virus was typically employed as a metaphor for ostensibly subversive ideologies or threatening processes operating within history, especially communism. In these Cold War era works, a virus might metaphorically infect a healthy body politic with subversive impulses, threatening social death. The protagonists battled the virus to save society. In contrast, in Kushner’s drama the virus becomes historical time itself, and human beings more passively endure the suffering and death that even an angel cannot bear. While they are ravaged by time, the characters also stand strangely apart from it. This sense of exile from temporality pervades more recent viral narratives such as Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, in which a virus turns most of humanity into aimless zombies, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, in which the virus does not turn anyone into a zombie, but most people die anyway. In Junot Díaz’s short story “Monstro,” the narrator frets uselessly about his deteriorating social life while the pandemic transforms the inhabitants of Hispaniola into “forty-foot-tall cannibal motherfuckers.” The narrator does not seem able to think of anything to do about this.

The role of literature within these stories becomes curiously automatic. Station Eleven follows a troupe of travelling performers who brighten the monotonous days of the small settlements of survivors with Shakespeare and classical music. Lines are memorized, but not written. One character tries to start writing a new work that would speak to the post-pandemic world, but she manages only the first line, which others mistake for a suicide note. Aesthetic experience exists only in the moment of performance, not in the written word on the page. In Zone One, the main character takes notes about his repetitive, menial employment clearing zombies from office buildings: “He recorded everything on sponsored recycled paper, in longhand like in the dark ages before computers. It passed the time.” Here literature is parodied as bureaucratic note taking that passes empty time rather than filling it with meaning.

To be sure, all along Hollywood has kept the legend of the older viral narrative alive with movies like Contagion and tv series like The Walking Dead. It’s on-screen that the older, Cold War era ideological narratives of agon against the viral enemy persist. The difference can be seen clearly in the film adaptation of Max Brooks’s experimental fiction World War Z. In the book, a series of vignettes from around the globe create a fragmented impression of individual human futility and, at last, victory over the virus in the form of programmatic collective action that itself seems ironically, ominously zombie-like. In the movie’s linear narrative, Brad Pitt saves the day. The fact that everyone rushed to watch Contagion in March tells us that there is still a hunger for the old story of heroic struggle within time. But the newer genre of viral literature, the literature of exile from time, teaches us something important about our current condition. In this long process of waiting, we might learn something more real about our relationship to nature, to the world outside the self, to one another. Perhaps this possibility is captured in Mandel’s description of the impact of performative aesthetics in Station Eleven: “Kirsten stood in the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest.” A feeling of openness to the world, a feeling that does not require time’s passage. Perhaps, the feeling of a new kind of literature.

About The Author

Thomas Allen

Thomas Allen's academic training is in American literature, but his current research interests include, broadly, the cultural history of temporality, including both the mechanics o...

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