I've always had trouble picking favorites, or even just deciding between the lesser of two evils. A middle child, I instinctively try to make peace, find a third way rather than choose sides. I can obscure the issue with academic language or pretend a scientist's discomfort with claims of certainty. The data do not appear, at this time, to wholly refute the hypothesis; further study is likely warranted. I can tell myself there's virtue in discerning shades of gray, grace in recognizing the saint and the sinner in each of us. And yet I think of Monty Python's telling of Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail, the king and his knights crossing the Bridge of Death, the bridge keeper asking Sir Galahad a simple question: "What is your favourite colour?" To which Sir Galahad replies, "Red. No, yellow!"—and is cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.1 For the weakness of his convictions, perhaps. I laugh because it's funny, and also because it's unsettlingly true.
For me, as a reader, to choose my favorite novel seems not unlike writers choosing favorites among their works. (When asked about it, writers often seem to respond that it's not unlike a parent choosing a favorite child.) Nevertheless, if on pain of death, or the end of earthly existence as we know it, choose I must, I nominate the last novel I've read: Lydia Millet's A Children's Bible2—not only for its literary and artistic merits (though claiming the authority to judge such things also unsettles me), but also because I believe it's the right story for this time.
When the novel was released in May 2020, just after COVID-19 first interrupted business as usual, I was unaware of it. At the time, I was starved of fiction (also of time, optimism, pleasure, hope) as I frantically tried to learn how to teach my students through squares on screens, to incorporate this new virus into my lesson plans while avoiding it in my life, while gradually apprehending the implications of the disease and the surreal state we'd entered. I was preoccupied, and so I ignored, at first, those voices that declared the pandemic an opportunity, enjoining us not to waste a good crisis, those seemingly tone-deaf cries that called for coupling environmental action to our response to the public health emergency. They argued that COVID had exposed deeper structural vulnerabilities stemming from globalization; from the razing of habitats [End Page 156] across every continent; from blind rejection of not just science, but any and all expertise and authority, even basic fact; from our failure to imagine better lives, lives lived not only for ourselves. Eventually, I began to realize there was sense in what they were saying. I began to consider bats, civets, and pangolins as victims rather than vehicles. I came to appreciate the links among poverty and overpopulation, obesity and McMansions, how our planet was being robbed and ravaged. I began to see that, as the moral arc of the universe continued to bend toward justice,3 punishment would be meted upon all of us.
When I read A Children's Bible this winter, nine months into the pandemic, I found a novel that seemed at first clever and humorous and tender but soon turned terrifying and heartbreaking, a climate change narrative both absurd and hyper-realistic, proclaiming what I could no longer deny. Families gather for a summer vacation in a lakeside mansion, a series of superstorms hits the region, and languor and leisure give way to disruption that gives way to dystopia. Reading A Children's Bible was like reading a parable, a tale of truths both simple and complex, wickedly so,4 with axioms constructing an irrefutable argument, pieces assembled into a mosaic depicting our shared, desperate future. The present-day, decidedly non-fictional viral outbreak (yes, the story glances at pestilence, too) has produced anguish and suffering of a duration and degree I hadn't witnessed before in my near half-century on this earth, and yet COVID is likely only the first plague of our...