We are all living through a disaster story right now.
We don’t want to. We don’t like it. But we don’t have any choice.
Like me, you’re probably very worried. We all have people we love, and some of them may be vulnerable right now. We’re all facing an uncertain present and an even more uncertain future.
But if it’s any comfort, this is a well-trodden path we’re all on.
Human beings have been surviving all manner of disasters, great and small, since we started walking upright – and then we made up stories about what happened, to use as road maps in the future.
So what can fiction teach us about fear – in fact, how is fiction going to help us in any way?
Because it is what fiction is for.
Times like these – it’s the very reason stories exist.
Stories, from Superman to Cinderella, Hunger Games to Hannibal Lecter, are our collective wisdom. It’s why we read them and watch them and listen to them.
You see, fiction isn’t about things that never happened. Plot is just a device. The real story is about you and me, and discovering together what we are really like inside.
And we only ever learn anything about ourselves in a crisis.
Every day, somewhere in the world, there are people fighting to survive some sort of personal threat; it could be a war, a divorce or – as is happening right now – a virus.
You and I have been thrust into the middle of this. There is no way to refuse the call. Our particular story will be what we do between now, this unexpected beginning, and The End.
And that story will count for something.
We all have had parents or grandparents who lived through even darker days than these. When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me how she and her neighbours sat in an underground station in London during the Blitz, singing songs to keep up each other’s spirits while the bombs fell and the ground shook. (Much the same way Italians serenaded each other from their balconies above the deserted piazzas during their lockdowns.) Every morning she woke up wondering if this was the day she would be a widow at eighteen, or be homeless – or both.
My old man remembered sitting shivering on Juno Beach on D-Day+1, with a cold can of baked beans, thinking: this is the last time I’ll ever see the sun come up.
My grandmother would sometimes mutter under her breath about her brother-in-law, who got himself listed ‘unfit for duty’ and instead stayed home and made a handsome profit on the black market.
Theirs were stories about heroism and fear and survival and now such reminiscences form the backdrop to countless novels and movies about those same terrible times.
Very soon, we may all have stories a little like theirs.
There will be hoarders and profiteers; there will be those who say it’s everyone for themselves and others helping communities pull together; there will be doctors and nurses fighting on the front line and people going out of their way to help others who can’t help themselves.
And when the story finally ends – and hopefully our time of danger will not last anywhere near as long as that terrible war – we will all have learned something about ourselves.
Did we secure seven thousand bottles of hand sanitizer so we could sell them on eBay at a ridiculous profit – or did we give the food we just bought from the supermarket to the old lady who got knocked over in the stampede in the aisles?
What about you? When people write novels about the Coronavirus Epidemic of 2020 – and they will – will you be the inspiration for one of the villains or one of the heroes?