Guess what time it is? It's Quarantine Club O'Clock!
I have been waiting for this all week... and by "waiting for this" I mean "frantically reading Part Two of The Plague" to be ready in time to write this blog post, and I have to be honest: I almost didn't make it. It's barely still Tuesday. There's been a lot going on, at work, at home—well, those things are one and the same now—and I for one am looking forward to having a drink or three tonight, to make up for all the drinks I haven't been drinking because I didn't want to fall asleep with The Plague in my hands.
I can't help but notice that everyone in The Plague is drinking more now, too, now that the daily death toll in Oran is in the hundreds. Everyone in Seattle is drinking as well. Some friends who have a balcony at their apartment told me two days ago they woke up to the sight of their balcony covered in vomit. They're not sure who to blame. "There's only three balconies above us, so it's one of those three," my friend said. "I get it, people are overindulging and they're anxiety ridden."
I haven't been mopping vomit off any balconies, but I have seen signs of anxiety everywhere I look. Meanwhile, I appear to have caused a run on copies of The Plague. Local bookstores ran out of physical copies last week (back when you could still order books to-go; bookstores are now closed under orders from the government [can you believe I just typed the sentence "bookstores are now closed under orders from the government"?]). Even Amazon is out of The Plague in paperback; their website says they'll have more in stock by April 3.
Several people who want in on this club have written to say they wish they had a little more time to join. One of the smartest, funniest people I know, a close friend who read David Copperfield last year just because I'd wanted someone to talk about it with (hi, Bob!), wants in on the Quarantine Club, but he very understandably wants to read a paperback copy of The Plague, not a Kindle copy.
So is it okay with you all if we push back our schedule slightly? If we give ourselves a little more time to read it? Raise your voice now if you have any objections. [Total silence in my apartment...] Okay, then, it's decided! Instead of all of us frantically reading Parts Three, Four, and Five by next week (the original plan, which seems nuts to me now), we're going to chill out a little bit. We are going to be normal, moderately paced readers and digest the book in the manner Camus wanted us to in the first place, in five parts, with a little pause between each one. We will read Part Three for this next week (and talk about it a week from today), Part Four the week after that, and Part Five the week after that.
That will also make our discussion posts more precise and more fun. One of the things I have loved about the Part One discussion post is seeing which sentences stood out to you all as your favorites; I want to keep asking for your favorite sentences in each of the Parts, and a post next week that said, "What's your favorite sentence in Parts Three, Four, or Five?" would be bananas. So this is going to make things better all around.
One of you said your favorite sentence in Part One was the one in which Grand was described as "mouselike." Another of you said your favorite was when Othon was described as looking like "a well-brought-up owl." Another of you pointed out that in the sentence right after the "owl" one that Othon's kids were described as "two poodles."
Ever since you all made these observations, I have been noticing animals everywhere.
In Part Two, I kept seeing horses. Did you catch 'em all? During Father Paneloux's sermon, "Someone in the congregation gave a little snort, like that of a restive horse." And then a little later there's the "horsewoman" in the first sentence of Grand's novel (hilarious that he toils and toils on his novel and it turns out all he has is many versions of a first sentence—I've been there); even though Grand is not describing the "horsewoman" as being horselike herself, it is an unavoidable thought for me each time I see Camus use the word "horsewoman." (Hey, Quarantine Clubbers reading this in French: What's the word Camus uses in the original? Is it a generic word like "equestrian," or is it something gendered and species-swapping like "horsewoman"?) And then later on there's the smuggler with "an equine face," and two paragraphs later an "equine head," and then a couple paragraphs later is referred to "horse-face" more than once, before we learn his name is Gonzales.
And then elsewhere Tarrou is described as looking like "a big gray bear..."
Speaking of animals: The most horrifying thing in Part Two might be what the town is doing to its cats and dogs. Even though I have read The Plague once before, I completely forgot this (on page 112) was coming, and it startled me:
Now and again a gunshot was heard; the special brigade recently detailed to destroy cats and dogs, as possible carriers of infection, was at work. And these whipcrack sounds startling the silence increased the nervous tension already existing in the town.
A "brigade to destroy cats and dogs"? This is so upsetting, the casual killing of defenseless creatures. Also upsetting? The magical thinking that is behind it. Without giving too much away, I can confirm the plague in this book is not transmitted by dogs and cats. But the people Oran, seized with imaginary truths, think it might be, so the dogs and cats have to go.
(It occurs to me as I write this that there might be some connection between shooting cats with bullets and shooting cats with gobs of spit, but I can't quite make the connection in my mind. Anyone else have thoughts along these lines? Put 'em in the comments!)
The thing with the dogs and cats isn't the only evidence of magical thinking in the book. Take a look at Father Paneloux and his horrifying sermon, the one in which he tells the town that they are to blame for the plague. Before I get to Father Paneloux, though...
You know how books pull all kinds of odds and ends out of your brain? Memories that haven't been revisited in years? Ideas you've had that you've never seen expressed before? Previous versions of yourself you forgot about? This is what I love so much about books: how deep they go. Movies and TV are great and everything, but they're all surfaces; I get distracted by the pretty actors and, even when I'm wrapped up in the story, I don't do a lot of thinking. Books are something else entirely, because you are an active participant in the story (you have to have the vocabulary to understand what's happening, you have to have the imagination to picture it), and because each sentence in a book can lead your mind practically anywhere, down all kinds of corridors of the mind.
I fell down a corridor of my mind when I read the scene of Father Paneloux's sermon. He's giving his sermon and the rain is drumming on the windows of the church and Paneloux "stretch[es] forth his two short arms... as if pointing to something behind the tumbling curtain of the rain." And then he says, in the direction of the rain:
"See him there, that angel of the pestilence, comely as Lucifer, shining like Evil's very self! He is hovering above your roofs with his great spear in his right hand, poised to strike, while his left hand is stretched toward one or other of your houses. Maybe at this very moment his finger is pointing to your door, the red spear crashing on its panels, and even now the plague is entering your home and settling down in your bedroom to await your return..."
While this is utterly ridiculous to me now—while I regard people who think Lucifer is taking physical shape and manifesting in bedrooms and hovering over their houses as uneducated at best—the reason this scene stuck to my brain folds is because I used to be a person who fully believed in such a Lucifer.
Even though I now work at The Stranger and I'm friends with Dan Savage and I'm as gay as a tree full of tap dancers, long ago and far away I used to be a closeted, "born again" high school Christian growing up in the greater Los Angeles area. And I will never forget—Father Paneloux brings this back to me with a clarity and force that is uncomfortable—a certain pivotal experience at a church youth retreat, in which I too thought I was in communication with the sky.
It was a religious experience, and it happened in a place where angels are not known to hang out: Malibu. The chasm between how profound it was for me at the time and how absurd it seems to me now is Grand Canyonesque. Our church had rented a house on the beach for a youth retreat. The moon over Santa Monica Bay was suspended above its reflection like a moving magic trick. It looked as stunning as that moon in the photo at the top of this post. Our youth minister was strumming a guitar and we were sitting in the sand around a campfire singing “This Little Light of Mine,” and the moon just would not stop looking at me. It had a friendly aura, as if it were aware of me there on the beach, as if it were a face.
It looked like a cosmic stand-in for the face of God, and at 14 years old, I was eager to communicate with God. I had the usual doubts about Christianity—what about antibiotics? what about evolution?—and I wanted my doubts to go away. I just needed a signal. A sign. Something irrefutable. I knew I was not supposed to test God, but I kept thinking: Maybe there's a little thing he could do, to show me he's real. What about a wave? If God sent a wave high enough up onto the beach to douse our campfire, I told the moon, I would give my life to the cause, I would convert as many people as possible to the church, and I would never doubt Christianity again.
No joke, a moment later, a big wave shot unexpectedly high up on the shore, to where we were sitting, and snuffed out our campfire—lots of hissing and popping as we all ran shrieking up the beach. Foamy water got in people’s shoes and almost in the youth minister’s guitar. I ran along with everyone else, but in a kind of double-consciousness, because (in my mind) I was the reason for this freak wave. I was the cause. It was a message meant for me. Even though I was running to dry safety, in another sense I had just been flung to the heavens. The rules of physical space no longer applied to me, to my specialness, to my personal relationship with God. This wasn’t a matter of feelings. This wasn't faith. This was a fact crashing across the surface of the earth. And it was for that reason—that moment with the moon and the wave—that I spent the rest of high school being absolutely sure about Christianity.
Which seems completely ridiculous now. Later, I learned how waves work. The transition from low tide and high tide isn't always perfectly gradual. But it is true, it is unavoidable in my own mind, that that is the person I used to be. Father Paneloux seeing in the rain the presence of the devil reminds me of myself talking silently to that moon and sensing in it the presence of God.
I experience all kinds of memories, ideas, past selves kicked up into my consciousness when I read deep, good, chewy books like The Plague, and the reason I just shared this one with you about me is because I'd love to hear one about you. You got any stories like that? Maybe you remember being in love with someone who was far away, the way Rambert is separated from the love of his life—would you be willing to share the short version of that love story with us? Maybe you have been fully wrapped up in a creative project that you were totally overthinking, the way Grand is with his novel—tell us about it? Maybe you saw something horrible going on in the world and you decided to donate your time to a cause, the way Tarrou does with the volunteer sanitation force—what was the cause that you took up? Basically, use something that's happened in the book so far to share something about yourself.
Or... you can just do the discussion questions.
A. What's your favorite scene or moment from Part Two, and why?
B. Which character's actions are most surprising to you so far?
C. What is your favorite sentence in Part Two?
The Quarantine Club "meets" in the comments section of a weekly Slog post that goes up Tuesday late afternoon. A few thoughts on the opening pages are here. Part One discussion group is here: 🐀. Part Two discussion group is here: 🐀🐀. Part Three discussion group is here: 🐀🐀🐀. Part Four discussion group is here: 🐀🐀🐀🐀.