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of a divided society

The collaborative book Fourteen Days, edited by Margaret Atwood, explores the effects of a pandemic on a society that is divided.
Culture

of a divided society The collaborative book Fourteen Days, edited by Margaret Atwood, explores the effects of a pandemic on a society that is divided.

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During difficult times, Brecht ponders in the Svendborg Poems if there will be singing. He believes that even in the midst of darkness, there will still be songs about it. It is natural to express sorrow during a crisis and it may even serve a social purpose. However, how we articulate our response to a catastrophe can be controversial, especially in light of the recent Covid pandemic. While it is too early to assess the overall impact of the crisis on literature, it appears that we have emerged from it with a sense of conflict rather than harmony, and a feeling that the plague and its quarantine only intensified existing divisions and cultural disharmony.

The publication of Fourteen Days was incredibly timely. It was commissioned by the US Authors Guild Foundation, with proceeds supporting its charitable work. This collaborative novel is set in New York during lockdown and offers a collective narrative of that time. It was created by 36 renowned authors from the US and Canada, including Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston as editors, and features work from impressive writers such as Emma Donoghue, Ishmael Reed, Dave Eggers, and Celeste Ng. The book celebrates the power of storytelling and human connection and takes place in a Manhattan apartment building where residents gather on the rooftop at twilight to share tales while maintaining social distance. As the pandemic hits New York hard, the stories serve as a reminder of the loss and isolation experienced by many.

The introduction clarifies that each character was created by a different author, and the diverse cast reflects the diversity of the writers. The rooftop serves as a crowded stage where a variety of testimonies are shared each day. These include ghost stories, angels appearing in Mexico, a nun with the ability to predict death in a Catholic hospital, war tales, a story about gay adoption, and an account of Shakespeare’s survival during the 1590s plague in London. Even a seemingly simple anecdote about a pet rabbit holds a deeper meaning about the power of shared trauma. My personal favorite is a story set in 1970s Texas about a Black female country and western musician who falls in love with a white male star described as a mix between Kristofferson and Glen Campbell with more grit. The harsh realities of the time and place are portrayed with musicality in a bittersweet ballad of doomed love. The author, Alice Randall, is revealed at the end of the book.

The protagonist of the book is Yessie, the caretaker of the building. She is a second-generation Romanian-American who identifies as a lesbian. Her main goal is to reconnect with her father, who has Alzheimer’s and is currently living in a nursing home in another part of the city. As she works towards this, she also documents the daily gatherings in the building and relies on notes left by the previous caretaker to help her keep track of the residents, whom she has given nicknames to. However, there is a lot of background information provided, which makes it difficult to follow a cohesive storyline. The book follows a similar structure to Boccaccio’s Decameron, which is set during the Black Death pandemic in 14th-century Europe, but this is not revealed until later in the story.

The Poet, a Black writer and academic, declares that listening to everyone in hiding from the plague and sharing stories is reminiscent of the Decameron. In his own story, he satirically recounts a seminar where different artists read classical works about the plague, now declared a national emergency. However, representatives of marginalized communities at the seminar criticize Boccaccio for being discriminatory towards the LGBTQ+, disabled, elitist, Jewish, and racist communities. There is ongoing debate about who truly has a voice and the blurred line between censorship and teaching. Despite the discursive nature of the novel, a central theme emerges: the struggle for identity.

The presence of spirits also becomes a recurring theme, providing a somewhat cheesy conclusion, but it is the specter of the culture wars that truly haunts the book. Fourteen Days documents how Covid-19 intensified a fervor of conflicting rights and intense debates over free speech and censorship. And it unintentionally highlights the impact that lockdown had on literature: how it has become increasingly self-absorbed and focused on personal experiences rather than creative storytelling. The strength of much of the writing here is undeniable, as is the feeling of personal testimony. The fact that it does not come together as a novel is perhaps the intention, giving us a more accurate representation of the fragmented world we returned to. The imagination remained socially distant, leaving us with a strange sense of collective isolation.

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Source: theguardian.com