Why I Chose This Book
Way back in high school, in twelfth grade, when I was still Hot Stuff, we read Camus’s The Stranger for the International Baccalaureate literature class. One of the assignments that came from the IB people was to write an addition to the text in the style of Camus that could be inserted into the story. I wrote a piece that fit into some scene where the protagonist meets some woman at the beach and basically hooks up with her and I incorporated the word “breasts” and the whole thing was well-received. I remember very little else of the book but it left me with a favorable impression of the author. I’ve always intended to go back to him. And finding myself as I so often do wandering through the sci-fi shelves at the library growing vaguely dissatisfied with the selections, picking up and putting back a few end-of-the-world epidemic kinds of stories put me most recently in mind of the book. I had to request it from another branch, though. That detail is not pertinent.
Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book
I just finished the book today while sitting at the park, and I had a lot of time still sitting at the park to go over my impressions of it. Also, I wanted to get in a non-feminist blog post before Friday’s installment of Feminist Friday (lest people start to worry that all I care about is women and their rights) to make my interests look diverse, and I am killing time before Certain People decide they’ve done enough paperwork today and get their Certain Asses into the living room to watch the next installment of The Wire. (Season 1, Episode 6)
Nutshell Review of the Book
I won’t say that this book gave me nightmares, exactly, but I did have one dream where I was quarantined and worried about if anyone in my family (including me) would get sick. I also found it to be a page turner (with the exception of one chapter toward the end that did not serve the plot on purpose and that I’ll talk about later). It was sad, and it was scary, and it was one of those books where you wonder what you would do in the same situation, but it was also one of those books that probably would have been a much richer read if I’d known more about the historical and political context it was written in and was speaking to. A better understanding of philosophy wouldn’t have hurt, either. These gaps in my knowledge did not detract from the experience of reading the book. I should probably also say that it was slow-paced and focused on very few characters, and I don’t want to necessarily say that you would also find it a page turner, or that it’s a book that only smart people would find page-turning. But you might think it was boring, even if you are smart.
Detailed Review of the Book
Now I will write lots and lots of words and I will lost track of what points I am trying to make because there was so much going on under the surface.
When Husband saw I was reading the book, he commented something along the lines of, “Let me guess–plague erupts and the government fucks it all up for everybody.” It was a fair assumption; think of how many post-apocalyptic disease scenarios you’ve seen played out on TV or in movies or in books. Sometimes doctors can’t figure it out in time to convince anyone to act; sometimes one corrupt person prevents a system from falling into place that will protect people; if the disease takes hold and people die, civilization drops away and roaming packs of cannibals yadda yadda. It’s a common trope. Government is the villain or arrogant doctors are villains (or noble doctors are incompetent) or the virus is Highly Mutatable and/or Crafty or Average Person is a barely contained savage waiting only to prey on the weak. The book is never really about the disease so much as it is about what disease does to people, and you lie awake at night wondering if your front patio gate makes a good zombie deterrent (mine does) or if you’d pick Boulder or Las Vegas when the nightmares come.
This book has no villains. Civil servants notice and clean up a public health hazard immediately. The main character Dr. Rieux recognizes the disease as the plague that struck the Middle Ages (bubonic plague) and warns the city government, which starts making observations. When the death toll gets too high, they quarantine the entire town. Nobody revolts. A reliable food supply is procured that eventually causes poorer residents real stress but nobody starves. When city government is unable to manage the plague itself, citizens volunteer to help and organize themselves. Although it’s a resurgence of bubonic plague, modern medical knowledge keeps deaths far below the medieval 1 out of 2 or 3 rates. It never spreads to another population. Eventually, it subsides. What’s so awful and scary in the book is the actual disease. It’s a horrible way to die, and nobody knows who will be next. It’s so obviously what would be scary in a situation like this that it makes all the other disease books I’ve read seem cheap and hysterical in comparison. You get a couple hundred pages of living inside the town inside the heads of a few people enduring this psychological torture, and it’s brutal and unrelenting and you just don’t know what’s coming next. When Rieux and Tarrou (they become friends over the course of the book) have a single joyful moment, it stands out beautifully. When Grand forces himself to work on the perfect first sentence of a novel he wants to write, it is genuinely funny. When everyone gets all depressed about Christmas in Quarantine, it’s very, very sad. When Rambert–a non-local who is trapped within the city walls when they lock everyone in–sets himself to the simple task of escaping and tries to meet just the right set of shady characters who can help him, it’s as thrilling as a heist sequence set to quirky bongos and clarinet music.
There is a philosophical explanation for why these simple human acts set against a backdrop of complete institutional despair seem so emotionally heightened. I associate Camus with existentialism because of The Stranger, but I can’t even tell you if that’s got anything to do with it. Sorry. But even when people do all the right things, horrible things sometimes happen, and you can’t even really get angry about it. The author describes more than once how the townsfolk sort of close themselves off to each other and to life, and there is not even a lot of end-of-the-world carousing, which makes everything even worse. (At one point a character wonders when they’ll be dancing in the cemeteries, but not even funerals are happening in the cemeteries. There’s just a drop off of bodies, a name checked off on the requisite clipboard keeping track of the deaths, and the sprinkling of quicklime until enough bodies are in the hole to cover them all with dirt.)
It’s so depressing, and so awful to think about being there yourself, and I’m back to why I found it so much more frightening than anything else I’ve encountered in fiction along these lines, and so much more suspenseful.
Lest this go on for another garbled and rambling thousand words, I’ll bulletpoint the parts I know are important and interesting that that I lack the viewpoint to fully discuss:
** Tarrou gets an entire chapter to explain how the plague is civilization and how he’s always had it and why he has decided to always side with the victim from that point on. He’s a guy with an interesting past, but without knowing more about mid-20th Century European History and all the political ramifications of the French in Algiers and being in exile and probably a few communist revolts, the full metaphor is not revealed to me. It makes his character’s resolution very powerful, though, even within my limited understanding. Not to say that you don’t understand what he’s describing without knowing anything. It’s not really a history dump, and if you are philosophically impaired you will still be able to sympathize with him in his journey through life. I wish I knew more about it, and French Colonialism, but a quick read on Wikipedia to flesh out this paragraph isn’t really going to make me feel particularly informed. I’ll catch up on it later.
**Grand’s 50-page manuscript and the burning of the manuscript and his career path pre-plague is blatantly symbolic, but in a very non-annoying way. It attracts attention to itself as Very Meaningful, but it isn’t heavy-handed. I can’t really explain it succinctly. Just read it. You’ll see what I mean.
**You could call Camus’s portrayal of women problematic. You could also probably sputter about historical accuracy and all that (it was set in the 1940s), but that wouldn’t really erase the problem.
**I’ve chosen not to read the Tarrou and Rieux episode as homoerotic, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who did.
**All the names probably have these symbolic connotations in French, but I don’t speak French.
**They mention a murder and a murderer in this book that made me think of the guy in The Stranger. Did Camus do direct references like that? Is it supposed to impart more meaning to the experience of reading The Plague?
**Cottard, the one character who is allowed to feel normal human experiences and articulate his emotions about being trapped within the town during the plague, is a criminal. See notes above about Tarrou. (Rambert’s animation lasts for a while–he is a lusty foreigner with a lusty woman to go home to–but even he gives it up eventually.) Cottard during normal times, however, is not this way at all.
What’s on Deck
Water for Elephants (for real-life book club)
The second book in the Game of Thrones series
The Nabokov memoir has to go back to the library on Friday. I don’t think I am going to get to it, although I might hold it over the weekend. Because the library is closed on Sunday and Monday, it would only count overdue one day if I got it back to them by Tuesday. Depends on how fast this Elephants book goes. I was quite impressed with the first three chapters, but I’m getting mixed reviews from friends about the rest of the story.