Book Review: The End of October by Lawrence Wright
If you haven't had your fill of pandemic related media yet, there is one recent novel that you may want to add to the Spring/Summer reading list. Even if you're tired of hearing about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, The End of October postulates a different sort of viral bugaboo, and a far more devastating disease in its plot.
Journalist and writer Lawrence Wright researched and composed his debut novel well before this novel SARS coronavirus emerged and spread across the globe. On staff with the New Yorker, Wright's prior work focused on political topics, including what became his 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
The End of October fits into that hybrid subgenre of speculative fiction and scientific/medical thriller most associated with the popular success of the late Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain). Wright's debut fiction fits this mold well, for better or worse depending on one's literary point of view and expectations. While I see it as an overall mixed bag of success in significance and entertainment, I can easily see how some might love it and others want to toss it aside. So, in what ways does the novel have those effects?
First, Wright can clearly investigate historical facts and turn them into a compelling speculative story. Beyond gathering the generalities of infectious disease and epidemiology, he uses research on historical influenza pandemics and Ebolavirus epidemics to create a frightening scourge. It's an amalgam of the worst abilities that the two viruses have: an airborne and bloodborne pathogen that can be spread by contact or through respiratory aerosols; highly pathogenic, infectious, and contagious; with devastating morbidity and mortality. One can't really imagine anything worse.
This brings us to our first example of a double-edged sword in The End of October. The individual biological details and historic anecdotes are generally and admirably spot on. But Wright's combination of them to create a really taut thriller that amps up the fright and chaos stretches the likelihood of possibility. By just focusing on influenza or Ebola, rather than combining elements of the two, things could have been kept more realistic, while still successfully portraying many of the novel's themes of catastrophic global disruption and dysfunction. Additionally, some the copious well-researched details that Wright puts into the story may prove a distraction. Most will be familiar to readers of this blog. For more general readers that information may be both informative and interesting. But the details at times feel like info-dump that unnecessarily slows down the otherwise breakneck pace of the novel.
The plot of The End of October progresses with short chapters that stress easy leisure readability typical of mass-market thrillers. The story of global pandemic outbreak is told largely through the eyes of protagonist Dr. Henry Parsons, a microbiologist/epidemiologist working for the WHO. Dr. Parsons becomes stranded outside of the United States, away from his family, as the pandemic outbreak explodes and national borders are shut down. The scientists of the novel discover the viral outbreak began in an Indonesian HIV internment camp from where it rapidly spread. For much of the novel Parsons tries to work within Saudi Arabia, as millions of arrivals for the annual Hajj in Mecca create the perfect viral breeding ground for infectious spread. While Parsons works in Mecca with a local doctor, the deputy director of Homeland Security back in the United States rushes to try and control the developing situation and discover its true origins.
The majority of The End of October deals with the failure of political and social infrastructures to respond cohesively and properly to a pandemic threat. Sound familiar? The novel got a great deal of press at the time of its release for its prescience and 'startling' predictions. Of course, readers of this blog probably didn't find the news of a pandemic that surprising in a general sense. Most would have predicted influenza over coronavirus, and Wright pretty much did the same. Likewise, to readers of this blog, the ineptitude of political responses may not be completely surprising. Scientists and political experts on the medical/biological side of things have long been warning of pandemic dangers. Wright isn't Nostradamus, he simply researched what everyone had been saying could happen and put it into a novel.
With so much of the novel being about really large-scale global issues of politics, economics, and religion, too much of the scientific breakthroughs of the plot get filtered down to only the protagonists (particularly Parsons) playing a role. In reality of course, the fate of the world probably won't rest solely on one person's shoulders. To give this more individual and emotional weight, Wright uses the pandemic's effects on Dr. Parson's wife and children back in the US to illustrate just how ruinous infectious disease can be to the soul. Despite personal pains, Parsons' responsibilities don't go away, and he has to put aside grieving to continue his work. While reality wouldn’t have this occurring to any individual 'superhero,' it does serve symbolically in the novel to represent the countless front-line workers of our current pandemic who have sacrificed so much to keep going.
The End of October also brings political turmoil to the point of global conflicts breaking out, with the possible specter of biowarfare/bioterrorist hanging over things. Just as the pandemic breaks out faster than the ability to react, so too does the novel rush to its conclusion before the reader can really get everything straight. The last quarter of the book is perhaps the weakest, rushed to a vague conclusion that has left some readers thinking the origin of the fictional pandemic was a naturally arisen virus, while others feeling the novel points to a laboratory-made origin. Again, sound familiar? An unfortunate outcome of this may be that some read this novel and use its fiction as further fuel to then make speculative arguments regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
In the end, The End of October uses good science and historical research to speculate the sociopolitical and religious impacts that a horrifyingly deadly and contagious viral outbreak could have. The speculative aspects of the biology don't necessarily hold up, and the exaggerated direness of the biological threat and its impact are clearly over-the-top. But this works to fuel a page-turning thriller. If you're craving that flavor of leisure read, and are okay with the topic hitting close to the frightening realities of today, you'll want to give this novel a read.