A couple minutes ago, I made the mistake of turning on the TV, to see what they were saying. It was tuned to Meet the Press, and David Brooks's face filled the screen, and he was saying "the problem of loneliness, isolation, alienation," and immediately I turned off the TV.
I walked into the other room, sat down in my reading chair, and flipped open The Plague. My cure for loneliness, isolation, and alienation is great literature. Feeling a live connection with a dead writer is thrilling to me, especially if there are other people in my life I can talk about it with. It gives me something to do. There is just nothing to do when you watch TV, except sit there, motionless and slack-jawed; there's nothing challenging about it; there's no reward for thinking. It's not deep enough to be satisfying.
But, man, The Plague! Definitely deep enough; definitely satisfying. As you may have heard, it is the first selection of the Quarantine Club, a coronavirus book club that I invented on the spot a few days ago and am making up as I go along but which already has members all over the world. If you would like to join the club, email me a photo of the view from your reading chair, or a photo of your reading chair, and include your copy of The Plague in the shot if you can.
I learned something else about The Plague yesterday that I did not expect.
Reading it with the right person is weirdly romantic!
I never expected a novel in which bleeding rats figure so prominently to be romantic. But I was at my boyfriend's apartment last night, having canceled on a dinner party because we wanted to reduce our social activity (you've seen this, right?), and we were looking for ways to entertain ourselves in his apartment (which blissfully does not have a TV). I've read The Plague before, but it's been a few years, and I knew I needed to read the first 63 pages by the end of tomorrow, to stay on track with the book club, so I said: "Can I read to you?"
We cuddled up and I read aloud to him slowly, and then when his attention started to drift we switched off and he read to me, and then when my attention started to drift I would read some more, and so on. Even though it made the reading slower-going, it also made it more fun-going, because there was a person to talk about each paragraph with, a person to share it with—not just to check in to make sure we were each tracking what was happening moment by moment but also to share our interpretation of what we were reading with each other, each of us noticing something about the text we wouldn't have noticed if not for the other person.
Granted, we only made it to page 14, and that took us 45 minutes, but it was a glorious 45 minutes. After that, we got, um, distracted by being in each other's arms, and moved on to other activities... But that's none of your business!
The point is what it was like to read together, our own little two-person cell of the Quarantine Club. (If you're wondering if it's okay to hang out with just one person while you're quarantining, read this; in short, yes.) While we read, we talked about how the town of Oran, where the novel takes place, is kind of like Seattle, in that it's "glamourless" and "soulless" and a place where you can "let yourself go." We talked about the description of Oran as being "restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there," especially the potential double meaning of "sleep" as death. We talked about the hilarious sentence, "Only winter brings really pleasant weather."
We found a typo on page 4 of my copy ("Our citizens word hard," it says, but I'm pretty sure that should be "work hard"). We talked about how the word Oran is only one letter away from the word Iran, where covid-19 has so far killed 724 people. We talked about the concierge Michel, who is convinced that he keeps finding dead rats in the hallway of the hotel because "youngsters" are catching them, killing them, and planting them there to fuck with him.
We talked about the descriptions of rats staggering around, like the one Dr. Rieux sees spinning "around on itself with a little squeal" before falling on its side, its mouth "slightly open," with blood "squirting from it." We talked about Dr. Rieux thinking the problem with the rats was no big thing ("It's nothing") and then immediately seeing a railroad man pass "with a box of dead rats under his arm."
And now, as I'm sitting here preparing to keep reading, I just glanced at page 15 and saw these sentences:
On the fourth day the rats began to come out and die in batches. From the basements, cellars, and sewers they emerged in long, wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of pirouette and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers.
I'm already sucked back into the novel, and will be sitting here reading for a good chunk of the day. I hope you are too! I have heard anecdotally in Seattle that the Quarantine Club has created a run on print copies of The Plague, but if you work at a bookstore and you have copies, please say so in the comments. If you haven't been able to get a hardcopy, there are PDFs of it online, and I've already gotten at least one photo of someone reading it on a Kindle.
You have until the end of the day tomorrow, March 16, to send me photos of the view from your reading chair, or the view of your reading chair, as well as any other details about the conditions of your quarantine: where in the world you are, whether you've read The Plague before, what you're eating and drinking as you read about dying rats bleeding from their mouths, and anything else you want to share with the rest of the club.
On Tuesday, March 17, I will be posting the photos you all send me, along with discussion questions for Part One of the book, for us to discuss in the comments.
In case you're wondering what my reading chair looks like, here tis:
The Quarantine Club "meets" in the comments section of a weekly Slog post that goes up Tuesday late afternoon. Part One discussion group is here: 🐀. Part Two discussion group is here: 🐀🐀. Part Three discussion group is here: 🐀🐀🐀.