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On Pandemics, Climate Change, and Finding Humor Amid the Doom

Author Jim Shepard talks with Jeff Goodell about his new novel “Phase Six,” a scientific thriller about the return of a killer microbe

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Image captured and colorized at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.

IMAGE POINT FR/NIH/NIAID/BSIP/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The Covid pandemic is not over, and may not be over for a long while yet. But with vaccination rates up, this might be a good moment to pause and think about what a microscopic virus has done to our world. Already there’s a literary pandemic of excellent books emerging, including Michael Lewis’ The Premonition and Nina Burleigh’s Virus.

Jim Shepard’s Phase Six, released last week, is nothing like those books. Phase Six is a novel that Shepard wrote before this pandemic about the next pandemic. Its main characters are two female epidemiologists, an ER doctor, and a Greenlandic Inuit kid named Aleq who watches everyone he knows and loves die around him. The book begins with Aleq and a friend playing in an old mining pit, where Aleq grabs an interesting looking rock that has surfaced out of the thawing permafrost. Unbeknownst to him, it contains “a cluster of molecules that had previously thrived in the respiratory tract of an early variant of the Bering Goose.” The next day, Aleq and his friend wake up with sore throats, and, as they say in Hollywood, complications ensue.

Unlike recent accounts of Covid, this is not a book that is much concerned with what goes wrong in the response to a crisis. It is a book that is concerned with what went wrong with our relationship with nature. It is about what pandemics do to our hearts and souls and how we make sense of our relationship with the environment, especially at a time when the climate crisis is changing our world in ways that most of us can’t begin to fathom. In Phase Six, pathogens kill millions, but they also inspire us to be better people. As one character says, reflecting on her life as her body fails, “I wish I’d been kinder.”

jim shepard

Jim Shepard

Courtesy of Jim Shepard

Like all of Shepard’s writing, Phase Six is a startlingly original act of imagination. I won’t pretend to be unbiased in this judgement: I’ve shared plenty of Irish whiskey with Shepard over the years and count him as a friend. But if anything, that’s just given me deeper insight into his work. He’s best known for short stories that combine a non-fiction writer’s curiosity about other times and other worlds with a fiction writer’s curiosity about how we make sense of those worlds. Some of his best stories are about Roman executioners, submariners during World War II, and a Minoan father hanging out on the beach with his son in Crete in 1600 BC as a tsunami is about to annihilate them. “The World to Come,” a story about a broody, passionate romance between two women in upstate New York in the 1840s, was recently adapted into a film directed by Mona Fastvold. The Book of Aron, his 2015 novel narrated by an eight-year-old boy in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation, manages to turn the terror of extermination into a deeply human adventure about love and loss. And in some kind of magical sleight-of-hand that converts dark pessimism into cutting wit, Shepard’s stories always manage to be funny.

Phase Six is both an exploration of the world we’re all living in today and a preview of what’s to come tomorrow. As one critic wrote, “In any other year [Phase Six] would be a brilliant accomplishment on its own. This year in particular, it may serve as our most potent warning to date.”

I just read Michael Lewis’s new book about the Covid pandemic called The Premonition. It’s very different from your book – starting with the obvious fact that Phase Six is a novel. Also, you actually had a premonition about the Covid pandemic.
I did, yes. But you didn’t have to be The Amazing Kreskin to figure this one out, especially since there was this army of epidemiologists who all got together way back around 2006 and announced that in the next one or two generations there was going to be a major pandemic.

It was when you read a newspaper account of a kid who got anthrax from thawing permafrost in Russia that this first piqued your interest, right?
Yeah. The kid got anthrax about four or five years ago and died. Twelve years old, and 20 of his relatives got really sick as well. The Russians sent in a team and the team was horrified to discover that anthrax spores that had been dormant had come back to life.

What was it about the kid with anthrax that made you say, ‘Hey, there’s a book here’?
I’m always interested in that intersection between stuff that nobody can do anything about — that element of the natural side of catastrophe that’s being visited upon us no matter what — and the multiple ways in which we contribute to our own undoing with our own behavior. And our messing with the permafrost seemed like a really nice example of both inadvertent and calculated human intervention: We’re generating climate change, which is exposing a larger and larger active layer of the permafrost to thawing, and in terms of more calculated intervention, as soon as we discovered we were warming up northern Russia and Greenland, those countries decided they were going to start mining all across their northern extremities. So that combination of inadvertent and absolutely calculated heedless behavior has always interested me.

The story is not just a pandemic story. This is also a climate change story.
Yeah, it really is. But I wanted to try and dramatize it. I wanted to try and work out how it operates and how you move, disastrously and otherwise, from the micro to the macro, how you move from very small scale to very big scale, which is kind of the nature of the initial outbreak. By definition, you’re moving from small to large. Not only one person, but from one tiny microbe outward.

For the people who haven’t read your work before, you’re known for doing a lot of research and journalistic inquiry. You went to Greenland as part of the reporting for this book, right?
Once I decided to set the story in Greenland, I knew the place was going to be alien enough to my imagination that I really was going to need to visit it. And although I did a lot of reading about Greenland, when I actually got there what floored me was what any reporter knows — which is that you don’t know what you don’t know until you get some feet on the ground. For example, the instant you arrive, you realize that if you have an entire settlement that’s built on rock, all of the infrastructure has to be above ground, and how differently that makes everything look and feel. You know, if you’re continually stepping over sewer pipes and rain pipes – well, that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t show up anywhere in research. You just have to go there and see it.

The investigative aspect of your research method also extends to the structure of the book. Two of the main characters are both epidemiologists who were basically trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Of all the ways you could have structured this book, it’s interesting that you chose to center it around a scientific investigation.
Well, I’m very interested in the ways in which in microbiology you’re sometimes confronted with a situation where you literally don’t know what you’re dealing with. With Covid, we know what we’re dealing with, but the question is, how do we deal with it? [But] there are any number of instances in the history of microbiology where people were just like: What is this? Or how could this virus or pathogen possibly be operating like this? And that seems to me a fairly cool kind of mystery that carries a real dramatic charge. I mean, it’s bad enough to have something that’s lethal. It’s another thing to have people that you trust go, “We have no idea what this is.”

How did you come up with the specific scenario you describe in the book?
One of the challenges was coming up with something that would be fiendishly complicated enough that the global medical community would have some trouble putting together what was going on. But as is often the case, when I’ve dealt with people I’ve been interviewing, if I make the problem their problem, they have a lot of fun with it. My very first book was about a 12-year-old stealing an airplane, and I sat down with a roomful of pilots and said, “I’ve flown a little bit, but my character’s going to steal an airplane and then he has to land it safely. How’s that going to work?” And they all went off and had so much fun trying to figure out how that would happen.

In this case, the same was true with Lois Banta, the microbiologist with whom I worked. She was like, “Oh, you know, suppose the microbe did this, that would be cool.” And it was always based on science. It was always based on pathogens that she knew about from the past. One of the things that was fun to explore was the way in which old pathogens like Legionnaires’ disease and things like that had completely fooled the medical establishment because of their idiosyncrasies.

So the scenario that you write about in the book, from what you’ve learned, how likely is it?
Well, that particular scenario is a pretty rare scenario. But I think something coming out of the rock or the permafrost to bite us on the ass, that’s going to happen. Much more likely is it’s going to happen in ways that we can somewhat control after initial outbreaks. The much greater dangers may be from those pathogens that have passed away — we thought — from the Earth to which we have no defenses that are just going to be brought back. Buried viruses would have to be revived, but there are other bacteria that have not been active for a long time and we don’t know how they’re going to behave. There is now some thinking among anthropologists, for example, that Neanderthal man wasn’t wiped out in an evolutionary battle with Cro-Magnon man, but in fact by a pandemic. And if that’s the case, it may well be that whatever killed Neanderthal man is something we no longer have the ability to fight. And that’s somewhere in the permafrost. So there’s stuff like that that will keep you up nights if you start thinking about it.

One of the things I love about the book is your respect for microbes as a force of nature. I mean, you have a lot of respect for pathogens in this book.
Ha! I really do. And that’s a hard-earned respect.

As one of your characters says, “Who are you going to put your money on, humans who have been around for 200,000 years or bacterium that have been around for 3 billion?”
Exactly. And the final epigraph of the four that are in the book is the Louis Pasteur epigraph, which is “Gentlemen, it is the microbes who will have the last word.” When you think in terms of that kind of timescale, it’s no contest.

What has surprised you most about the way the Covid pandemic has played out?
I think as cynical as I tried to be about the political response to Covid, and the way we would be divided against ourselves, I really didn’t conceive of just how aggressively stupid a lot of the political response was going to be. Or how aggressively and instantly a large number of our political leaders were going to be able to say that reality was not reality. You know, I was probably pretty good on what would a Republican governor do. But the idea that an entire national party would announce that there was no such problem that we had to deal with — I didn’t see that coming.

Do you think we have learned much from this pandemic? Are we better prepared for the next one?
I think we may be better prepared in some ways to know what the drill is when the shit hits the fan in terms of what should we be telling our rank-and-file citizens. I don’t think we’re any better prepared in terms of the kinds of behaviors that will prevent more of these, because we’re simply not willing to learn that lesson. That’s one of the areas where this problem completely overlaps with climate change.

You know, we just come up with a discourse that announces to us that other things are more important. So people say things like, ‘What we need is a way of slowing down climate change that doesn’t cost us any jobs.’ As though there’s not going to be an economic cost to climate change if we don’t address it. And we just decided that’s the way we’re going to go about this. There are versions of that going on on the pandemic side of things as well. We would be very wise to hugely limit our incursions into some of these areas that are opening up the possibilities of zoonotic diseases. We’d be very wise to shut down wet markets that do the same. It’s a little bit like saying we shouldn’t burn the rainforest in Brazil. In some ways it’s not our call. And in the ways it is our call, we’re not making the right call.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro just says, “Butt out, this is our rainforest. We’ll do whatever the hell we want with it. And if you want us to stop cutting it down, how about paying me billion a year with no strings attached.”
It’s a little bit like dealing with the Jersey Mafia, you know? “Nice little rain forest you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it.”

Speaking of that, it’s interesting that there’s no bad guy or villain in your book.
Yeah, I think the reason for that is I’m very interested in the way we’re all complicit, especially those of us who think we’re doing our best. You know, the Dr. No figure lets us off the hook in some ways because all of our bad behavior and all the complicity is concentrated in this one evil guy. We can then say, ‘Well, if it wasn’t for him….’

I’d actually been considering having the pathogen walk out of a lab, because I know that’s such a big danger. People tend to think that these labs are way more airtight than they really are. But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that that would in some ways let everybody off the hook, as in: If it hadn’t been for either this klutz who let it come out on his shoe, or this evil person who smuggled it out, we all would have been fine. And that’s not the situation. And so I’m much more interested in those situations that are related to that worm’s eye view. And I’m much more interested in the way those of us who say, “Well, I’m not making any decisions” still contribute to these situations. And that, again, is climate change.

Well, it takes us back to this idea that we are all complicit in our own destruction, which is a very powerful thought. Or to put it another way, we’re all in this together and we all have some responsibility for what is going on, and at the same time, no responsibility at all.
Yeah. And that paradox, I think, is what protects all of us. We have a lot of responsibility and we have no responsibility. So when push comes to shove, we can lean on that second phase. You know, we can just say to ourselves, “Hey, I voted for the right people. Leave me alone.”

It’s not clear how many people actually die in the book, but it’s clear at the end that there’s going to be a lot of dying. As a writer, how do you think about that?
There’s always that ethical issue of mobilizing suffering for the purposes of entertainment, right? And you hope that you’re doing something compensatory enough that you’re not only doing this as an exploitative thing, but that there’s something redemptive about it as well. You know, all of literature decides in some sort of faintly queasy-making way to foreground some human beings over others. So if you’re Tolstoy, you write War and Peace, and, you know, thousands and thousands of Russian soldiers die, and you don’t give that too much thought because your protagonist, meanwhile, is doing X, Y, and Z. And inherent in that is the notion that your protagonist is more important than all of those thousands of people. But part of what you’re doing, too, I think, that’s redemptive, is you’re saying that the macro is going to be dismal one way or the other, right: millions suffer and die all the time. But what’s supposed to keep us from hanging ourselves from a showerhead is the micro. So you say: Millions are suffering and dying even as we’re speaking, but you love your daughter, and how you feel about your daughter is pretty wonderful. And how your daughter feels about you is wonderful. And that’s not a negligible thing. And that juxtaposition is also what allows me to write books like this that seem awfully dire in their outlook and not have people go, “Well, that’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever read in my entire life.”

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really important to say that there’s nothing depressing about this book. In fact, I found many parts laugh-out-loud funny.
Yeah. I mean, I wrote about school shootings and people said, “I can’t believe how funny this book is.” I wrote about the Warsaw ghetto and people said, “I can’t believe how funny this book is.” But you know, when I talked to ghetto survivors, they all said, “The comedy is what got us through.” And again, it seems almost impossible until you remember that’s exactly how we live our lives. We go, “How on earth can we appreciate humor in the face of the fact that we’re all going to die?” Well, I’ve got some good news for you: You’re doing it right now. On some level, we all know what’s coming. And yet we all go, “But I’m enjoying this moment and I thought what you just said was hilarious.” In fact, it becomes even more important to enjoy the moment, and to laugh, for exactly that reason.

From Rolling Stone US