‘Yet I Alive!’: COVID-19 and the future of the novel
In Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year the population of London is ravaged by a terrible pandemic. As the bubonic plague overwhelms the city, Defoe describes a world that is strangely familiar to us, a place of panic buying, lockdown and fake news.
Yet the book is more curious than it might at first appear. Published in 1722, A Journal of the Plague Year is actually a record of ‘the last great visitation’ of 1665, an event that was already fading from collective memory in Defoe’s time. This poignancy is heightened even further by the fact that the streets and alleyways of St Giles, St Andrews and Holborn that the book so wonderfully evokes are those very thoroughfares that were reduced to ash in the Great Fire a few months later in September 1666.
The subsequent rebuilding of London so soon after the great plague ensured that the contagion was able to inscribe itself onto this new cityscape. The wide streets, the pest houses, the new churches and market halls, the pervading presence of brick and stone were as much an attempt to reduce the risk of miasma in this new Jerusalem as they were of fire.
Defoe’s work is a powerful evocation of this lost London, in which the everyday detail of life under the last great pandemic almost 60 years earlier is meticulously described. To do this Defoe came up with a completely new way of writing the novel, a form and structure that would do justice to the ‘terrible judgement of God’ that had befallen the capital.
A Journal of the Plague Year is the outcome of that experimentation, a strange, beguiling sleight of hand that defies as much as it entertains. Purporting to be the authentic testimony of a certain H.F., the journal is actually nothing of the kind, although it was only years later that the real identity of the author became widely known.
Defoe was just a few years old at the time of the plague; rather than being a first-hand account, then, the journal is instead a clever weft of secondhand memoir and fiction. Where one ends and the other begins is impossible to say. What helps to complete the deception is the careful use of primary sources, from bills of mortality, newspaper adverts and government orders through to oral testimony and medical accounts.
The result of all this is not only a new kind of fictionalised autobiography - radically transforming the eighteenth-century epistolary novel - but also a new way of representing what life had actually been like as the world had turned itself upside down over a lifetime earlier.
"As we are witnessing with our own great visitation, the pre-COVID world is not likely to return any time soon"
I can’t think of a novel that better captures the strange timelessness of lockdown, the vertiginous circularity of days, weeks and months spent in self-isolation, as the high streets empty and the hospitals overflow.
Defoe’s trickery shouldn’t surprise us. As we are witnessing with our own great visitation, the pre-COVID world is not likely to return any time soon. Not only will the pandemic transform cityspace through a renewed momentum for neighbourhood reclamation, pedestrianisation, traffic-free spaces and cycle lanes; the ongoing turmoil will also demand new ways of telling the story of our lives.
Just as we saw with Defoe, we too are witnessing a great surge in the need to reach out and connect, to tell our stories and to hear the stories of others. From digital platforms such as social media, through to the more traditional television and radio, we are immersed in the endless flow of narrative. From live streams of mortality data, interactive maps, photographs, medical exposition and apps, through to autobiography and biography, fiction and poetry, the stories we hear and tell ourselves have never been so important or pervasive. Our phones ensure we are plugged into this great network of narrative 24/7, where our very movement becomes another part of the story, a geospatial text inscribed across our towns and cities.
In this tide of change and adaptation, this great infowhelm, the novel will be taken apart and put back together, just as Defoe did in 1722. Our yearning for the real and the intimate; our relationship to fiction and truth; our need for connection and empathy; our inverted sense of the local and the global, community and attachment; of trust and belief; of transformed futures in a deeply traumatised and troubled world, will ensure that our need for stories will never be quite the same again.
In this post-COVID world, the touch of the physical, printed page will take on new and enhanced importance; at the same time, our normalised use of digital media and real-time connection that the pandemic has precipitated, is not going to go away; our stories will be real-time, emergent, autobiographical and interactive. Pre-pandemic digital stories such as Kate Pullinger’s Breathe and Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark By Then had already pointed the way; the lockdown lit of 100 Days of Decameron or #LockdownTales hint at what is to come.
With new autofictional mashups will come stories that reach across from page to Kindle to social media, forming ecosystems of storytelling that are multi-authored and collaborative.
The death of the novel has been a repeated refrain. Yet COVID-19 has surely proved that rather than withering inexorably, the novel has an inherent ability to adapt. Just as H.K. celebrates his own survival at the very end of Defoe’s work, then so too, in a post-COVID-world, will the novel be able to declare, ‘Yet I alive!’.
Dr Spencer Jordan is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the School of English.