Listen to this piece read by the author

My story​ will be that John Harvard gave it to me. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked, pointing at a bronze bust in the reading room where I had arrived to give my lecture, and was told that it was the university’s founder, John Harvard. ‘Damn,’ I said. ‘It never even occurred to me that Harvard was a guy.’ It was the night of 3 March, and travelling didn’t seem so foolhardy as it would even a week later; at that point the accepted wisdom was that hand sanitiser was the great necessity, and that the virus was being mostly spread by touch. (On a Q&A message board I frequent, there were multiple questions in those early days from people desperately wondering how to stop picking their noses. Something was coming for us eventually.) It was a pleasure to be in the reading room, a pleasure to note that the carpet was ugly, a pleasure to learn that Harvard was a guy, a pleasure to send the controlled flow of my voice into the microphone and out to the hundred or so people in the room. The fireplace was big enough to roast me in; there was a statue of Kronos in the corner, spreading inflexible wings from a soft central nakedness. It was, according to the new formula, the last normal thing I did.

‘It’s barely a flu,’ my friend said when she came over the next night to watch Titanic with me. I’ve always been partial to disaster movies, particularly ones where a volcano erupts and people have to run really slowly away from rivers of lava, but Titanic is the granddaddy of them all, and the situation seemed to call for it. ‘Why isn’t he turning the wheel? WHY ISN’T HE TURNING THE WHEEL?’ we screamed, when the opaque iceberg of history first appeared in view, and the ship of the people couldn’t swerve in time. ‘Fools,’ I said, delighted, and coughed the hot breath of John Harvard into my elbow. ‘Look at them. They’re about to get so wet.’

The first real symptoms were not mine, but my cat’s. Miette, who kisses me on the lips each morning to see if I have become food yet, became deathly ill with a stomach virus two days after my return; my other cats soon contracted it as well. I know what you’re thinking, but please let my husband have this. It pleases him so much to believe that our cats might have had coronavirus ‘before those cats in Belgium’. If I one day win the Nobel, it could not confer a greater distinction.

Miette was back to her usual self a week later, but I had developed a low-grade fever. My head ached, my neck, my back. My eyes ached in their orbits and streamed tears whenever I tried to read or watch television. My mouth tasted like a foreign penny. ‘You reek,’ I mentioned to Jason once or twice in passing. ‘Like a swamp thing.’ Since a ‘swamp thing’ is not a typical thing for a man to reek of – even a man who subsists entirely on mysterious powders from the health food store, and who every day drinks a shake that claims to contain All Known Nutrients – this should perhaps have been a tipoff, but it wasn’t. ‘Does it … feel like this to be alive?’ I asked him hesitantly one morning, and he shook his head feebly, flat on his back on the couch.

‘No tests,’ a blurry telehealth doctor informed me, and advised me to go to the ER if my symptoms became severe. What counted as severe? What, for that matter, was a symptom? The pain was like a long, steady sunburn inside my chest; the weight was like a lead apron. It seemed more sensible to crawl from place to place rather than walk. My mind had moved a few inches to the left of its usual place, and I developed what I realised later were actual paranoid delusions. ‘Jason’s cough is fake,’ I secretly texted a friend from the bathtub, where I couldn’t be monitored. ‘I … don’t think his cough is fake,’ she responded, with the gentle tact of the healthy. ‘Oh it is very, very fake,’ I countered, and then further asserted the claim that he had something called Man Corona.

‘The love of my life is now my enemy,’ I thought to myself, crawling out of the bedroom on hands and knees to take one million mg of Vitamin C, because what the hell else was I supposed to do – apply leeches? What kind of man would fake a cough while his wife was in the next room perishing? Hadn’t he discouraged me from going to the hospital? At the beginning of lockdown, had he not thrown away the empty detergent bottle I set aside for use as an Apocalypse Bidet, telling me I was being a lunatic? Look at him, I thought to myself evilly: fit as a fiddle and playing video games all day – though later, of course, it turned out that he was also delirious and had been playing the same twenty minutes of Skyrim over and over without ever progressing. When he checked later he saw he had saved 130 games, and that all of the characters he had so painstakingly created had ripped abs, leather outfits and huge cat heads. In between these feline exertions, he lay on the couch trying to summon the energy to make a will, so that I would have access to all of our financial information when he died.

The first wave subsided, and I thought I’d escaped, but the second hit with redoubled intensity a week later. My delusions became even more bizarre. I came to believe that someone ‘had put a Godzilla statue outside my window on purpose to freak me out’ – this, it transpired, was the silhouette of two black streetlights, one superimposed on the other. I spent two weeks adding 143 words to my novel, about peeing next to Rob Roy’s grave, feeling further from coherence with every draft. Local news graphics of the virion floated through the air, along with glimpses of originating animals: overlapping scales and flickering tongues, wings like black maple leaves. All this happened, it should be said, with a fever that never went higher than 100°F. The persistent feeling was that I would die in the night. I woke fighting to breathe, with the sense of a red tide moving slowly up my chest towards my neck. And all the while strange music marched. A sentence I had seen on Twitter, part of a letter written by a chief surgeon at a New York hospital, kept breaking through my delirium like a line of sled dogs through a blizzard: ‘Anyone working in healthcare still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.’

I knew I was out of immediate danger when I stopped worrying about what my corpse would look like and allowed my husband to shave my head to the skin with cat clippers while I stood naked in the bathtub. (By night I resembled the hot alien from Star Trek: The Motion Picture; by day, more unfortunately, I resembled Jared Loughner of the Tucson shootings.) Euphoria set in, and I began to putter around the apartment singing Creed’s ‘With Arms Wide Open’ at the top of my lungs, placing special emphasis on the lyrics ‘Welcome to this place, I’ll show you everything’. I knew Jason was out of immediate danger when my offer to make him soup was met with a long silence and then the hideous response: ‘You’re the one who likes soup.’ Creed didn’t enter into it for him at all.

Shy kleenexy flowers had opened all over the trees. Beauty played outside the window like a movie. I hadn’t left the apartment in six weeks, except to sit on a bench in the nearest square. As soon as I ventured out, I saw that real life had been going on the whole time, and along with it the narrative, the living organism of what’s going on, what’s happening. As far as organisms go, this one is unhealthy. ‘Good Covid to Ye, Person of Space!’ a group of crusties hollered at me as I passed them wearing a mask. My downstairs neighbour, whose apartment looks like a commercial for meth addiction and who commences playing EDM every night at 9 o’clock, so that my previously relaxing evenings have been transformed into re-enactments of ‘The Tell-tale Heart’, informed my husband out by the dumpsters that there was no need to worry: only people ‘with a very specific genetic profile’ can get it. He is a nurse. He also owns a custom surfboard designed by Elon Musk, so maybe that has something to do with it.

My sister-in-law, who is a nurse practitioner, mentioned that her best friend, a Covid denier, was persistently badgering her about whether any of her patients had Covid, whether she’d ever actually seen a patient with a positive swab. Her best friend is, yes, a nurse. A man who sits on the board of the museum where my husband works was also denying its existence, even though his friend was one of the first people in town to die of it, back in the early days.

‘Florida and Ohio, man,’ the barista at the local café said to my husband, when he asked about the tourist trade. ‘People here at least acknowledge that it’s real. But people from Florida and Ohio don’t even seem to think it’s happening.’ Having lived in both places, I believe him: I have long had a theory that the surrealism that has overtaken the political landscape in America can be traced back to the poisoned ground of Ohio Facebook.

A friend’s father informed her that the virus was ‘engineered and set loose by Obama’. The peculiar phrasing, and the film strip it set playing in my mind, made me realise that I kind of missed those old conservative email forwards that had Obama tiptoeing around hospitals dumping newborn babies into trashcans, presumably while wearing a stolen doctor’s coat and laughing a low, rich laugh. (Incidentally, I’m not sure why he was tipping them into the trash when he could have made a lot of money selling choice morsels of them to Planned Parenthood, but the heart wants what it wants.) ‘Conspiracy theories always get worse in an election year,’ my mother told me sagely: in 2016 the ads she saw on Facebook were mostly images of Hillary Clinton in a mandarin collar Photoshopped to have laser eyes.

As for my father, for the past few years I haven’t pressed him on the specifics of any of his own most cherished conspiracy theories, fearing what I might find. (This is a man who, after a rash of high-profile shootings, doubled his donations to the NRA and received in return a custom NRA jacket that he actually started wearing in public. Over his cassock, and along with an Audi hat, for some reason.) ‘Are you questioning my knowledge of epidemiology?’ he shouted at my sister, in the course of one conversation. She is a research pharmacist. He is a Catholic priest. She had asked him whether it was safe to administer Communion to people on the tongue; he countered that it was the only safe way. It should be stated that my father, in the early days of lockdown, was in his absolute glory. The only thing he’s ever wanted to do his entire life is hold a Secret Mass that is also illegal, and for a month or two he got his chance, operating through the loophole that a priest was allowed to celebrate the rite himself, and if he left the doors open and people happened to come in and witness it, and if a crumb of the body of Christ happened to fall off his fingertips directly into their mouths at the opportune moment, he could hardly be held responsible.

Yet when I was ill, he texted me multiple times a day asking how I was doing, and bought me a stuffed aardvark when I mentioned that I missed the one I had as a teenager. (It was black and nearly as big as my body, and after I bought it I used to carry it around the mall under my arm, delightedly making machine-gun noises at people: heredity crops up in the strangest places.) This replacement aardvark might be the only gift he’s ever bought me. I took to cradling it as I sat on the couch, trying to remember walking through that mall, being that person, thinking all the while that I was not the same.

I was under the impression that I had taken detailed notes throughout the experience, but when I opened the file called ‘quarantine’ I found it to be 158 words long and full of cryptic particles: ‘Masque of the Red Death. Statue of Pericles. Tigers.’ Fine, whatever: I’ll reconstruct the timeline using my photoroll, I thought, but that was even worse – instead of the screenshots of headlines and news stories I usually save, I found photosets of obscene ceramics featuring Kermit going down on Miss Piggy, and a bootleg T-shirt where Garfield was lounging in a hot tub and uttering the statement, I SEE SOME LADIES TONIGHT WHO SHOULD BE HAVIN’ MY BABY. These still wore a faint aura of hallucination, which was all that I could remember about them. Texts, too, were useless. To one friend I had sent a screenshot of Sinead O’Connor’s statement ‘I had been a Muslim all my life and I didn’t realise it’ with no further comment. The tesserae failed to form a picture, merely sat in the sun and winked. It seemed to mirror the fracture of information that had led us here in the first place – hence the people who appear actually to believe that the virus is being spread by 5G. I understand it. It would make so much sense if the internet was the thing that gave me this.

When I examined my history, I found the following search: insane after coronavirus? coronavirus made me insane? This can’t be entirely blamed on the illness. A few years earlier I had indulged in a similar query: insane after book deal? book deal made me insane? Other search strings of interest were: ‘Christy Turlington’, ‘the balkans’ and ‘those things they use to shock people back to life’.

Some people write Pale Horse, Pale Rider after living through a pandemic, other people don’t. Still, I had promised to dash off a breezy diary of the lockdown, in that period after immediate recovery when I was certain I was 100 per cent back to normal. ‘How’s it going?’ my editor tactfully asked me at one point – generally, when your editor asks you how it’s going, you tell her it’s going fine, and that she’ll have the pages in her hand first thing Monday. Instead, I was truthful, and told her it was as if I was living in that terrible movie Regarding Henry, in which Harrison Ford gets shot in the head during a convenience-store hold-up and afterwards becomes a mental child and can no longer make love to his wife. I used to be able to do this; I know I used to be able to do this. I used to be able to make love to Harrison Ford’s wife!

During a telehealth appointment, I explained to a different blurry doctor that after three months I was still experiencing intermittent symptoms: low-grade fever and difficulty breathing, mysterious arthritic nodules that had developed all over my hands, and for three weeks an almost total numbness in my legs, feet, arms and face. I was aphasic, stumbling in my speech, transposing syllables, choosing the wrong nouns entirely. Some of the delusions I had developed during the most severe phase of illness persisted: that my vision was a picture that had been pasted in front of my eyes, that my floorboards, creaking with the expansive spring humidity, were going to fall through. Hours, days had fallen out of my memory like chunks of plaster. Some of this was the effect of lockdown, I knew; just as everyone was having vivid dreams of forgotten classmates – did I, as a second-grader, actually date a pair of hot twins called Michael and Kevin? – so everyone had suffered a falling-out with time. But much of it seemed to be the continuing effects, or after-effects, of the virus itself.

One day I realised I couldn’t remember my phone number, another that I couldn’t remember my brother’s middle name. But the most stubborn fact seemed to be that I had forgotten how to read. So I set myself a syllabus of maniacal intensity, as if to put the alphabet back in order after a tower of blocks had tumbled down. There was no particular logic governing the books I chose, and more than a hint of lunacy: at one point I ploughed my way through both Marjorie Morningstar and Shogun. Sentences were sometimes as clear as if they had been blown by bugles; at other times they were dribble that barely stayed fastened on the page. An African in Greenland I read in one shining burst of comprehension, each word as firm in my mouth as a bite of whale blubber. I remember all of The Corner That Held Them and none of Dead Souls – I just kept underlining sentences where Chichikov was described as neither fat nor thin. I recall little of the revolutionary second half of Summer Will Show, but the first section, with its descriptions of Sophia Willoughby’s children feverish and dying of smallpox after being dangled over the lime-kiln by an infected man, seems highlighted on the page with real sun: ‘Don’t drop me, don’t drop me! My mouth’s hot. I looked at hell with my mouth, my mouth’s burning. Hannah! Come and take hell out of my mouth, take it out, I say!’

I have never been a straightforward reader, preferring to linger inside the cupboards of those paragraphs that describe Aunt March’s turquoise rings. Yet all of a sudden I wanted to read a book from cover to cover and be able to say what it was about. What is this about, I thought, what are books about? I read crazily, as if I were a train and the last page was Anna Karenina. I broke down crying one afternoon over Mani, knowing that if I were to take a test on the book after I finished, my page would read simply, ‘He … went … to … Greece?’ (And to be honest, even the Greece part I’m not sure about.) But some automatic force must still have been at work in me, because looking at it now I see this lone paragraph highlighted:

The air in Greece is not merely a negative void between solids; the sea itself, the houses and rocks and trees, on which it presses like a jelly mould, are embedded in it; it is alive and positive and volatile and one is as aware of its contact as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it with diamond rings or be grasped in handfuls, tapped for electricity, bottled, used for blasting, set fire to, sliced into sparkling cubes and rhomboids with a pair of shears, be timed with a stop watch, strung with pearls, plucked like a lute string or tolled like a bell, swum in, be set with rungs and climbed like a rope ladder or have saints assumed through it in flaming chariots; as though it could be harangued into faction, or eavesdropped, pounded down with pestle and mortar for cocaine, drunk from a ballet shoe, or spun, woven and worn on solemn feasts; or cut into discs for lenses, minted for currency or blown, with infinite care, into globes.

Now that’s it, I thought, that’s what I remember about reading, about life: real air, so real you can write words on it, sliced into cubes and strung with pearls.

There were times, in my childhood, when I was sure I had forgotten how to breathe, and concentrating on the sheer mechanics of it – a set of matching velvety billows inside my chest, draw in, release – always carried me further away from the automatic function. But I highlighted the same paragraph I would always have highlighted, my heart leaped in the same place it always would have. And now, writing this, the tesserae are moving into place the way they always do, as if they are aware of the pattern they ought to be making – little red cells arranging themselves into an organism, the stars and spots and animalcules that swarm together to make up vision. I used to be able to do this, I know I used to be able to do this, I will be able to do it again.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences