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‘The End of October’ Imagines a Pandemic-stricken World

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Published in April 2020, Lawrence Wright’s novel “The End of October” seems prescient: A new disease advances across the globe, with nations being brought to a standstill. 

Wright’s prophecies diverge from the coronavirus reality in important — and sometimes reassuring — ways.

The story’s hero is Dr. Henry Parsons of the Centers for Disease Control, who is dispatched to Indonesia to investigate an outbreak of kongoli, a deadly new virus. Parsons, in his methodical and analytical nature, is reminiscent of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, has written extensively about the Middle East and about the power of ideas, particularly in the sphere of religious dogma. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 book “The Looming Tower,” about the formation of al-Qaida. Influences of his past work are evident in “The End of October;” The kongoli virus spreads when millions of pilgrims gather in Mecca for the hajj. 

Wright is at his most clairvoyant when imagining the initial response to the outbreak. As with the coronavirus, leaders obfuscate and are slow to accept the dire circumstances. The virus is consistently dismissed as the flu — notably by the president of the United States. 

Before long, civil society completely breaks down, with major American cities descending into anarchy. 

In “The End of October,” neighbors turn on one another as supplies become scarce. So far, we all seem to have avoided this kind of community-destroying behavior.

Wright interviewed scientists and government officials for this novel. He complements his fictional prose with lengthy expository sections detailing past pandemics and advancements in epidemiology. While interesting in themselves, they serve no clear purpose until late in the novel, when Parsons, attempting to create a vaccine, draws inspiration from a smallpox experiment detailed earlier. 

Parsons’ attempt to get home to his family, and the repeated setbacks he encounters along the way, are less Homer and more Tom Clancy. He hitches a ride on a submarine, survives a bombing in the Middle East, and nearly drowns in the North Atlantic. 

Readers expecting an examination of individuals’ response to a plague, as a way of holding a mirror to our own society and times, will be disappointed. 

Instead, the outbreak seems like little more than a storytelling device used to tell a quintessential intrigue/thriller story. We turn to novels to make sense of our world, and sometimes to escape it. “The End of October” is, perhaps unfairly, asked to do both.

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