June 2020

by Helen Elliott

‘The End of October’ by Lawrence Wright
A ‘New Yorker’ journalist’s eerily prescient novel about public-health officials fighting a runaway pandemic

“We believe that nature is no match for human ingenuity and that nature can be tamed.” Henry Parsons, world-renowned virologist, has this thought as he flies across Georgia to his home town of Atlanta. From his tiny plane he sees the landscape unfolding below him. What he sees is nature reclaiming the land. He thinks about the Aztecs, the Greeks, Egyptians, all great empires, now vanished. Or vanquished. And he thinks about Pompeii, about the “incomparable ferocity of nature” still vivid to every tourist. 

It is eerie coincidence that this book’s publication comes along with the first global pandemic in a century. Lawrence Wright is a journalist with The New Yorker magazine. He has written about Scientology, sociology, diplomacy, politics and war, and in 2007 he won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction with The Looming Tower, an investigation into the leadup to September 11 that has been made into an excellent TV series. His hallmark is a lucid grasp of complex information, which he processes and reinterprets in classic plain style without ditching the complex underlying thought. That capacity is one of the pleasures of this book, his second book of fiction.

His premise is simple: what happens behind the scenes when a particularly virulent virus escapes into the population and a pandemic ensues? Henry is in Geneva preparing to return to his family in Atlanta when he is asked to check an internment camp in Indonesia. It’s in a place called Kongoli. He assumes he’ll fly in, take samples and continue home, but when he gets there he discovers something the authorities have been trying to cover up. Henry won’t be going home soon. And unfortunately for him, in his too-human fatigue and rush, he neglected to thoroughly instruct the cheerful driver who had driven him to the camp and who had entered with him. Now the driver has vanished, and in a few days is headed for a long-planned pilgrimage to Mecca. One man, two million pilgrims. The innocent super-spreader must be found.

Wright started work on this novel several years ago, intending it to be a cautionary tale. Interviewed in April, he said that, as a journalist, he’s faced dangerous situations but what most terrifies him is a deadly virus such as Ebola. The bravest people, he believes, are public-health officials, the selfless investigators in the thick of it. The End of October (Bantam Press) is about them and dedicated to them. Mid genuine pandemic, we read with an acute sense of being in the novel, wanting to learn, wanting to understand and yearning for a solution. Wright delivers. The reader identifies with Henry every step of the way, looking and learning with him and somehow being able to keep intellectual pace beside him. So this is how a scientist, an expert, thinks. Speed reading is not possible because you keep wanting to investigate names, places and dates yourself as you go, slicing fact from fiction. Most of it is fact. The End of October is a way to self-educate, to not feel so powerless in these disturbing times. Classy lit? No. Extraordinary research? Yes.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly June 2020
View Edition
Buy Print Edition

In This Issue

Bondi Beach, May 2020

The new tyranny of distance

Facing a historic isolation of a different kind, what next for our migrant nation?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The last word on George Pell

The royal commission’s damning verdict on what Pell knew about child sexual abuse in the Church

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Tour de forced cancellations

How Port Douglas, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree, has been quieted by lockdown

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Wage deals on wheels

Delivering your dinner for half the minimum wage

Read on

Image of Supermoon over Footscray. Image © Tim McCartney 2015

Lunar orbit

The strange paths taken by the mind when overwhelmed by fear

Cover image for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body