The First, Flawed COVID-19 Novel: Jim Shepard’s ‘Phase Six’

A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic — when it still seemed possible that social distancing might flatten the curve; as we anxiously tracked the virus’s multiplying hotspots, or wandered through ravaged supermarkets, hoping to find an overlooked roll of toilet paper — a colleague of mine was already thinking about the pandemic’s place in literature.

“I wonder when we’ll see the first COVID novel,” she said, gazing apprehensively into her webcam, in one of our first office-wide Zoom meetings. Even in late March, 2020, she knew this event was too big — too consequential in ways large and small, private and public — to escape the scrutiny of novelists, eager as they are to dissect and contextualize the forces that shape our lives. I knew she was right, of course; pandemic novels would be written, maybe lots of them. However, I figured it would be a few years until we had our first example.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Jim Shepard’s fast-paced and pessimistic new novel, Phase Six, is not about our present pandemic, exactly, but it qualifies as the first COVID-19 novel anyway, because unlike novels like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or Ling Ma’s Severance — both of which seemed to foresee COVID-19 but were written and published well before its arrival — Shepard is writing in direct response to the virus and our society’s bungled efforts to contain it.

Set a few years in the future (how many is never made explicit, but even children in the novel seem to remember COVID-19), Phase Six imagines the next pandemic — which, of course, threatens to be much worse. This time, the plague begins not in a Wuhan wet market, but in Ilimanaq, a remote village on the coast of Greenland. There, two boys, Aleq and Malik, explore an active mining site after sundown. This typical act of adolescent trespassing should be harmless, but drilling at the site has unearthed something dangerous:

“Two days earlier, the drill bit’s relentless pounding on the rock had finally broken the chemical bonds holding it to its ledge, and when that seam had cracked and the stress boundaries had separated, a cluster of molecules that had previously thrived in the respiratory tract of an early variant of the Bering goose and that had been trapped with some throat tissue in the crystalline framework during the Holocene glaciation had been reintroduced to the air and the warming sun. Even lying there in the darkness and dirt, Aleq could smell them, like heated metal. He had Malik smell, too, those molecules that were now released to become a part of something new.”

The next morning, Aleq and Malik aren’t feeling well. Nothing major: a sore throat, a runny nose. Aleq recovers just fine, but Malik gets worse; within a few days their families are very, very sick, and the settlement’s small health clinic is overwhelmed. Soon everyone in the village save young Aleq is dead, leaving him utterly alone, and the pathogen he helped unleash has spread beyond Ilimanaq to Reykjavik’s busy international airport, and from there, silently, to the world.

Two newbie CDC epidemiologists, Jeannie and Danice, fly to Greenland to investigate the outbreak. They are appropriately startled by what they find, and scramble to trace the pathogen’s origin. Aleq, the sole survivor, is the key. The boy, though, isn’t much help initially, crushed as he is by grief and guilt. He is transported to a Level-4 lab in Montana, where Jeannie hopes to get him talking and study his body’s apparent resistance to the pathogen’s assault. Danice stays behind in Greenland, but the distance doesn’t much impede their collaboration: they continue to work as a team to unlock the pathogen’s mysteries. In the meantime, millions fall ill, including many of the novel’s major and minor characters, some of whom die horribly but with little narrative attention, such is the novel’s strong forward motion.

Indeed, these 200-some pages are something of a whirlwind. Early in the novel, Shepard is fixated on the mechanics of transmission. He zooms in on shared forks, crowded airport terminals, gripped escalator railings — watching as the disease jumps invisibly from person to person, each of them unaware of their role in bringing the world to its knees.

As the outbreak spreads, Shepard turns this close attention to the work of Jeannie and Danice — as well as Val, a hospital physician in Rochester, and thousands of unnamed doctors and government officials across the globe — as they struggle in the dark to get ahead of the epidemic:

“Even deciding on which people to quarantine wasn’t that simple, given the banality of the initial symptoms, and the ridiculousness of the squeeze in terms of available space. Information sharing was nonstop from Greenland to Atlanta to Porton Down to WHO headquarters to Rocky Mountain Labs to Fort Detrick to any number of other places, and still no one had much of anything yet, and no one was even sure of that.” 

The pathogen Shepard describes is not a strain of coronavirus — it’s much deadlier than COVID-19, for one — but the pandemic itself is unmistakably our own. Shepard assumes, perhaps correctly, that we won’t learn a damn thing from this disease, and so his fictional pandemic is like a sequel that feels uncannily and uncomfortably similar to the original film. Whatever the differences in symptomatology and morbidity, we are talking, here, about COVID-19, and hardly a paragraph passes before we’re reminded of our ongoing predicament.

Shepard employed a research assistant while working on this book, and for good reason: his acknowledgements section credits, by my count, 46 books and scholarly articles, along with “any number of utterly invaluable papers and studies and synopses and lessons on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.” So, yes, this is a heavily researched novel — which may be its central flaw.

Phase Six is full of information. Shepard, here, is unafraid of digression: his omniscient narrator explains microbial evolution, recounts the pioneering epidemiologist John Snow’s work in mapping an outbreak of cholera in 19th-century London, considers the stifling effect of partisan politics on pandemic-prevention efforts, and ponders much else related to communicable disease in the modern world. Through the dogged work of the novel’s main characters, we learn about the safety protocols in place at Level-4 labs, about the bureaucratic habits of the CDC, about the many biological routes by which a virus or bacteria can invade our bodies and lay waste to most everything in its path. None of this is beside the point; much of it is important and fascinating. The chief pleasure of the novel is watching medical professionals, the committed and vulnerable people on the front lines, working through their confusion and fear and never-ending shifts to protect us as best they know how. Because most of us experience the COVID-19 pandemic passively by staying at home, watching the news, and refreshing vaccine registration pages, it is stunning and genuinely valuable to witness the trials of those charged with taking action. And at times the novel is heartbreaking and beautiful in its depiction of suffering’s complex interiority — healthy young men and women felled by cruelly random contact with disease.

But it often seems as if Shepard, having gleaned so much knowledge through his research, couldn’t resist cramming as much of it as he could into his novel, which consequently feels too concerned with the logistics of epidemiology and pandemic response and not concerned enough with human experience. This is how a pandemic unfolds, it seems to be saying. But is that what we need from fiction? Shepard’s main goal is to teach us, it appears — to impart information about public health and disease, albeit in narrative form. That’s a worthy aim, but the novel as an art form is capable of much more, and Phase Six never realizes this potential. Despite the presentation of so many facts, it never tells us anything truly surprising — it never rattles us into more deeply knowing the absurdities of the human condition, strained and warped as it is now in our pandemic-dominated existence.

Maybe this isn’t Shepard’s fault. Maybe this is the only way a COVID-19 novel could be written, here in the present, where we can envision with effort the other side of the pandemic but have not been afforded any unobstructed glimpses.

More time is needed, perhaps, to experience and reflect. All of the better 9/11 novels were published at a significant remove from the attack itself, chief among them Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland (2008), and Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011). I’m not sure this means anything — I’m not convinced you must wait a certain amount of time to approach a catastrophic subject, the way South Park infamously claimed it takes 22.3 years for a tragedy to become funny. But if that’s our working hypothesis, Phase Six — though a worthy novel in many ways — doesn’t do quite enough to disprove it.

Phase Six
By Jim Shepard
Knopf Publishing Group
Published May 18, 2021