Memory  /  Book Review

Did the Year 2020 Change Us Forever?

The COVID-19 pandemic affected us in millions of ways. But it evades the meanings we want it to bear.

The same process that made all the monuments about the fighting made all the books and poems about the fighting, too. Hemingway did write at length about the flu, dwelling on its ignominy: “The only natural death I’ve ever seen, outside of loss of blood, which isn’t bad, was death from Spanish influenza. In this you drown in mucus, choking, and how you know the patient’s dead is: at the end he shits the bed full.” In “A Farewell to Arms,” Frederic goes back to the war, and the nurse gives him a St. Anthony medal to keep. In real life, Hemingway gave the nurse a St. Anthony medal as she went off bravely to help the influenza patients. Through such details do writers revenge themselves on life. Once again, in literature as in public memorials, there is a figure-ground reversal between war and contagion.

It is perhaps a larger truth that epidemics, being an insult to human agency, are always removed to the background as quickly as we can find a figure to put in front of them. Something similar is happening with the history of the Covid pandemic, whose literature typically makes the medical story secondary to some other story, one with a plainer moral point. Like Hemingway with the nurse, we seek to make what happened less about pathogens and infection and more about passions and infatuation—in our case, often, political passions and party infatuations. Right-wingers were quick to decry the medical establishment for stepping away from its own public-health strictures when the George Floyd marches happened. (The protests took place out-of-doors, which provided at least a medical fig leaf for the rearrangement.) Still, such exchanges happened in all directions—as with the manic libertarian rhetoric that accompanied the resistance to vaccination. We search for some significant figure to place against the motivelessly malignant ground.

And how can we not look for larger social meanings? What if the pandemic, rather than knocking us all sideways and leaving us briefly unrecognizable to ourselves, showed us who we really are? In Eric Klinenberg’s excellent “2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed” (Knopf), we are given both micro-incident—closely reported scenes from the lives of representative New Yorkers struggling through the plague year—and macro-comment: cross-cultural, overarching chapters assess broader social forces. We meet, among others, an elementary-school principal and a Staten Island bar owner who exemplify the local experience of the pandemic; we’re also told of the history, complicated medical evaluation, and cultural consequences of such things as social distancing and masking.