Dated and Dateless: On Susan Zakin and Brian Cullman’s “A Journal of the Plague Years”

By Katie CatulleJune 11, 2024

Dated and Dateless: On Susan Zakin and Brian Cullman’s “A Journal of the Plague Years”

A Journal of the Plague Years by Susan Zakin and Brian Cullman

FRESHMAN YEAR of college, I decided to join a choir during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even separated across a screen, singing into straws to minimize the noise, I found myself looking forward to my virtual choir rehearsals. They did provide connection, from checking in with people I had never met in person to watching all those muted screens singing the same thing as me, somewhere out there in the world. We even had virtual concerts, compilations of individual recordings assembled into something resembling a choir.

We all had to find new ways to connect during the pandemic, from virtual choirs to weekly FaceTimes with family. Originally published as an online journal of the same title, A Journal of the Plague Years encapsulates another form of connection: sharing stories through unprecedented separation. Told through personal essays, poems, and investigative journalism, the new anthology collects pieces written in the immediacy of the events unfolding. Accompanied by a QR code linked to a Spotify playlist, the individual pieces sing out like a slightly laggy virtual choir reaching for connection from their individual screens.

Many contributors express similar pandemic-induced anxieties. J. C. Hallman asks, “What does an itinerant writer, or a digital nomad, do when the order arrives to shelter in place?” What does it mean to stay home when you don’t have a home? These questions intensify in conversation with Stephen Pain’s “The Enigma Variations.” Pain recounts his experience in the unhoused population: “In times of the pandemic, there was an initial transition period. One by one the World of homelessness became greyer and greyer.”

For others such as Unkonda Rasheda Sawyer, the lack of national leadership exacerbated anxiety around the unknown: “Listening to the president of the United States speak so incoherently was giving me a grimmer outlook, both on the future of the virus and of America’s future.” In the flood of conflicting medical information, no one knew what to believe. Truth became a political commodity.

As the collection progresses, the focus shifts from individual anxieties to the United States’ growing political unrest. Tom Henderson creates a nuanced depiction of the Portland Black Lives Matter protests, where the conservative press used the riots as a news tactic to escalate divisions. Henderson writes, “If you listen to Donald Trump, you might think the entire city of Portland was a war zone,” when in actuality “day-to-day life in Portland remains largely unchanged.” In her article “Who the Fuck Are the Boogaloos?” Blanche McCrary Boyd charts the historical background of a nation currently witnessing the “videotapes of a black man named George Floyd being carefully and slowly murdered by four white policemen who seem to be enjoying themselves,” alongside her own development from her Deep South roots. With these rich perspectives in conversation with one another, the “Plague of Politics,” as one section is titled, becomes potent.

These pieces sent me back to the mental hellscape of my own lockdown days in rural Western Maryland, where Fox News is the background track. My parents had just divorced, and my sister and I faced the question of what it means to “stay at home” when home is not clearly defined. The answers grew as murky as the days. My dad continued traveling for work, half from necessity and half from his growing belief that it was all blown out of proportion. Simultaneously, my mom began moving into her boyfriend’s house, week by week, box by box, slowly merging our respective families.

It became increasingly obvious that we were not going back to school. There were only so many books to read, recipes to try, and TikTok trends to dance before I began the next phase of isolation: moving to Boston for my freshman year of Zoom University.

In the early days of the pandemic, I would have reveled in this “journal.” The project provides a connection we all longed for, and as a writer, I would have loved reading about other writers’ lives. The immediacy of the pieces was helpful in that moment, but that moment has passed. The pieces feel dated, like spoiled meat. We are left with a scattered, unfinished rendition of history.

Like those initial days at home, the sections blend endlessly, one into the next—initial lockdown, BLM protests, the November election, the beginning days of Joe Biden’s presidency, with sprinkles of world politics and connections to history (and a nearly 40-page unrelated article on Peter Beard by one of the editors, who has apparently never heard the phrase “kill your darlings”). The sections themselves, with titles including “The Shock,” “There Are No Accidents,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” do little to guide the reader along. They might as well be titled “We Still Aren’t Quite Sure What to Make of This Part” or “Now We Move to Selected Parts of Non-America.” At times, I wondered if the point of such temporal ambiguity was to recreate the early feeling of lockdown when days began to blur. Other times, I wondered if there was a point at all.

A Journal of the Plague Years fails to ground readers in time. Alberto Montero, in his piece “Rounds,” captures such ambiguity from the unknown, quoting a Robert M. Sapolsky op-ed from CNN:

Can airborne coronavirus infect you, even if you are appropriately socially distanced?

Still not clear.

When will there be a vaccine?

Too early to say.

How long do you make antibodies after surviving Covid-19?

Researchers are only in the preliminary stages of understanding that.

And so it continues. But when was this written? When is it “still not clear”? When writing about a moment as ever-changing as the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s essential to know the exact moment that a particular essay is in dialogue with. A Journal of the Plague Years stretches between two irreconcilable goals: the desire to write history and the desire to capture the current moment. It loses the raw intensity of those early pandemic days by attempting to historicize it into an unfinished anthology.

The trouble with a 300-page book about a recent international disaster is that we are too close to it. This book does not shed new light on the pandemic, nor does it provide interesting conclusions. It simply recounts an experience we all went through quite recently.

Yet such an anthology also naturally leaves perspectives out. This problem presents itself from the first page, where the editors write, “We didn’t know how worried to be, but we asked friends: ‘Do you think I should make that trip? Get on a plane?’” Who is this “we”? Certainly not everyone was contemplating mid-March plane travel. Among other missing perspectives was the glaring absence of K–12 teachers struggling to connect with students and meet learning objectives over Zoom, anyone directly (or even indirectly) affected by the mass layoffs, parents unable to escape the demands of 24-hour childcare, and anyone who experienced a loved one’s death, couldn’t visit them in the hospital, or attended a virtual funeral.

A Journal of the Plague Years feels rather incomplete. Perhaps we can learn from Donald Trump’s infamous “covfefe” tweet, which Wikipedia, as quoted in the book by novelist Ted Mooney, until recently defined as “a nonsense word, widely presumed to be a typographical error, that Donald Trump used in a viral tweet when he was President of the United States. It instantly became an Internet meme.” I was struck by the number of typographical errors throughout this book. Several pieces are rather unfocused, as if a bunch of ideas had been thrown together but not yet made sense of. Problems inherent in the immediacy of individual pieces were not solved on the editorial level, leaving it unpolished.

We also see the unintentional irony in Steve Erickson’s “American Stutter” when he writes of Trump leaving office: “I wanted to wake in time to see him get on that chopper or plane & never come the fuck back.” Yet, four years later, we face a Biden versus Trump rematch.

The process of history is, of course, never complete. In her autofictional novel How Should a Person Be? (2010), Sheila Heti writes, “My life keeps changing. My life keeps changing!” This is fine for a work of autofiction, intentionally playing with questions of truth and reality, but less so for a book trying to stake a claim. Certainly, A Journal of the Plague Years should be celebrated for reflecting the immediate landscape of such a challenging time. Yet reading this anthology today is like listening to one of those virtual concerts: impressive, to be sure, but less preferable than attending a live performance (or in this case, reading a more polished, reflective history of COVID-19). The collection of voices lacks the vivacity of art-making in a shared space in the shared present.

LARB Contributor

Katie Catulle is a writer originally from Western Maryland. She is currently studying English at Harvard, where she is a member of the fiction board of The Harvard Advocate and sings with the Radcliffe Choral Society. Her fiction has appeared in Forever Mag and The Harvard Advocate.


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