What did Lawrence Wright do? For decades the New Yorker the editor-in-chief has produced high-caliber journalism; his six acclaimed books include the Pulitzer Prize The impending tower, a gripping tale of the 9/11 conspiracy. Wright is also a playwright and novelist and performs in a blues band.
His new work with lean and immersive limbs, The year of the plague, revisits 2020 in all its drama fueled by the pandemic. Wright returns through the fog to Wuhan, China, sifting through the zoological leap (or leaps) from bats to humans. Wright, an alumnus of Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, translates the complexities of epidemiology into plain English, as in his take on the virus spike protein: “The surprising thing about COVID-19 is that ‘There appears to have been a strange human disease success from the start, binding a thousand times more tightly to ACE2 receptors than SARS,’ the 2003 disease that ravaged East Asia.
From the start, the implications of the outbreak became obvious to scientists and doctors in Wuhan, and government officials imposed a communications blackout. This did not deter the clinicians: “Some very inventive dissidents rewrote the interview to bypass the censors,” Wright observes, “using emojis, Morse code, Braille and even Sindarin, the fictitious language spoken by the elves in JRR Tolkien. Hobbit books.”
An intrepid scientist smuggled the sequenced genome of the virus into an American database, spurring the development of a vaccine. A triage doctor, Li Wenliang, spoke of the rising tide of death; he became a martyr to the Chinese people after succumbing to the disease.
Chapter by stellar chapter, Wright traces the arc of COVID-19. It highlights the polarities within our politics, embodied by a recalcitrant President Donald Trump and Dr.Anthony Fauci, the benchmark epidemiologist who has reversed his take on mask wearing as data has poured in: that anyone else in the country. For Fauci, science was a self-correcting compass always pointing to the truth. For Trump, the truth was Play-Doh, and he could twist it to fit the shape of his desire.
Wright is at his best, however, when he places the pandemic in historical context – his detours to the Black Death and the 1918 Spanish Flu are narrative wonders – and in his portrayals of the players. Deborah Birx is surprisingly sympathetic. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was instrumental in distributing personal protective equipment to desperate governors and starting Operation Warp Speed, which led to groundbreaking vaccines. Shi Zhengli, a Wuhan virologist known as the “batwoman” in China, discovered hundreds of new coronaviruses among bats in a single mine; Wright probes his role in the ongoing “lab escape” debate.
he puts on The year of the plague with delicious transatlantic calls to Gianna Pomata, a former Johns Hopkins professor now retired in her hometown of Bologna, Italy. Pomata has long studied the transformative effects of pandemics on economies and social orders. She sees a silver lining in COVID-19, noting, with Italian flair and humor, that innovations evolve from global calamities. The same could be said of Wright’s startling book, born out of a year of plague but rich in unrivaled reporting and incisive criticism.
Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and non-fiction for the Star Tribune, the Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.
The year of the plague: America in the days of COVID
By Lawrence Wright
(Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages, $ 28)