The Day the World Ended

Today is the first anniversary of The Day the World Ended. On this day last year my wife and I drove to Salem to the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) to see its special exhibit of Jacob Lawrence’s “Struggle,” several dozen wonderful paintings reimagining iconic scenes in American history with Black figures inserted. On I-95 in Massachusetts we were surprised to see overhead alert signs directing us to an 800 phone number for information on Covid-19. The word was familiar from recent news stories, but why the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was providing information about it seemed a bit odd. It was odd, too, that the PEM was nearly deserted. The entrance staff welcomed us especially warmly, as if we were doing a big favor by coming out.

After viewing the paintings we were browsing in the gift shop when a series of alerts from The New York Times came rushing to my smartphone. I felt embarrassed that the beeps might disturb the handful of staff in the otherwise empty shop, but as the alerts became more frequent, even frantic, several staff came to ask what was happening. I read out the first: New York’s Metropolitan Museum was closing immediately because of Covid-19. Other cancellations followed: NBA games, NY City Schools, etc. As we drove home, even more alerts came through, and by the time we were back in Maine we realized that something really serious was happening. We gave that day the name we still call it, perhaps too melodramatically: The Day the World Ended.

Of course the world didn’t end in mid-March of 2020, but now a year later it definitely feels like the world we knew ended then. We’ve now had our second vaccine shot; the rate of vaccinations is swiftly growing as the case and death reports decline, and for the first time in a year we are hopeful that the worst is behind us. But the sense that we experienced some sort of end-time persists.

I just read Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, a perplexing novel that imagines an unspecified global catastrophe from the point of view of a family of four taking a vacation in a rental house on Long Island (the other one, in New York). The novel, a finalist for the National Book Award, was written before the plague struck, but it’s eerily resonant with our current situation. Alam never specifies exactly what happened, for which he has been roundly criticized in the mixed review the novel earned, but you can’t help feel that he was on to something
The novel reminded me of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1997), which recounts the reactions of a man living on the North Shore following the end of a war with China and the environmental damages it inflicted. Both novels depict bizarre scenes in which herds of deer suddenly appear as symbols of natural catastrophe. As a student of 17th and 18th century American Puritanism, I was reminded of sermons and letters predicting the end of time that so many people then earnestly expected—indeed, welcomed.

Just as it took only a few years for novelists to tell stories around the events of 9-11, I’m sure we’ll soon see fiction anchored in the 2020 plague. It’s impossible to imagine how the narratives will develop, but the event is too massive to be ignored. If I were writing a story about the plague—which I’m not and don’t plan to—I know that it would begin with a drive on I-95 as we watched overhead alerts, a near-empty PEM, a flurry of messages from the Times, and then the realization that the world (as we knew it) was ending. Frankly, I think I’ll be reluctant to read plague novels when they appear, but in the end I probably will because I need fiction to help me understand and cope. In the meantime, I look forward to dining out, visiting museums, and especially gathering friends for meals and lively conversations, all signs that the world did not, a year ago, end.

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