Cabin Fever and Forced Isolation in Fiction


via: tenor

I was on the beach in January when I first heard about COVID-19. My uncle made a stellar joke that the only cure for the coronavirus was a lime, and it would be another few days (after stumbling upon an article amid some mindless scrolling) that I realised it was an actual virus that existed and not a disease my uncle made up for the purposes of cracking a funny. 

Like everyone I’m currently spending majority of time inside – occasionally attempting to get some form of work done, and investing more time than I’m proud of attempting to nail the lyric’s to Joe Exotic’s ‘I Saw A Tiger’.

Right now, the days all feel kind of meshed into one. It’s frightening and it’s uncertain but it’s also making me appreciate so many little things which would’ve barely crossed my mind as a thing to be appreciative of a few months ago. I’m incredibly lucky for the stability I do have and for the friendships and relationships I can rely on despite how notoriously crap I am with checking my phone and responding to messages.

Anyway, if you’re currently on the lookout for some reading material that’s relatable but is also a break from thinking about COVID-19, here are a few literary explorations of ongoing and mundane isolation. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2018)

This was Moshfegh’s second novel, and personally I preferred her first book, Eileen, (which I’ve mentioned before) just because this is essentially about an unnamed narrator’s attempts to hibernate for an entire year [and I can always go back to living my own life if I wanna think about someone who takes a lot of day naps and only leaves the house at obscure times to do a coffee run – its greater meaning might’ve been lost on me]. But this book was the first time I found a new release in a Little Free Library so obviously I went for it.

Set in New York city between 2000 and 2001 pre-9/11, the young unnamed protagonist has lost both of her parents and this on top of being fired from her first job out of college, she chooses to put herself into a chemically induced hibernation for a year – hoping the extended rest will mean she’ll no longer feel tired all the time once it’s over.

Attempting to spend as much time as possible asleep, the only contact with the outside world the narrator has is, her incompetent psychiatrist who freely writes her prescriptions, and a best-friend she seems to secretly hate.

It’s an interesting enough concept, given everyone at one point wishes they could dedicate an extended period of time to sleep or skip over some months and wake up somewhere better.

The Memory Police (Yōko Ogawa, 1994)

Although this was originally published back in 1994, the English translation only came out last year. So for people like me who can’t speak Japanese, this is a 25-year-old new release; it reads like it could’ve been written now though, the story has a very timeless quality to it.

Set on an unnamed island – that happens to be detached from a larger unnamed island; the narrator in this one is also unnamed, and like the majority of her fellow islanders once the Memory Police (who dictate the island) choose to erase a particular object, animal, profession ect., all personal memories and feelings attached to that thing instantaneously disappear.

The secret minority who are capable of remembering, face persecution by the Memory Police, as do people who choose to keep or acknowledge forgotten objects; and due to boats being a forgotten object, locals have no remaining contact with life beyond the island. 

The unnamed narrator is a writer whose editor is being targeted by the Memory for his ability to remember. With the help of an elderly man, who is her only close companion left, the narrator builds a secret space under her floorboards for her editor to hide from arrest.

Basically its a good book to read in isolation because it makes you appreciate that at least you’re not living in a sci-fi Orwellian reality where all the potential things that could’ve entertained you like books or Netflix aren’t suddenly going to disappear on you.

Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966)

So spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre, but the main twist in that is Rochester – the suave brooding fellow Jane has a crush on/the master of Thornfield Hall/her boss – has kept his ‘lunatic’ first-wife, Bertha (who he was technically still married to), secretly locked away in the attic.

Hearing that juicy twist was the primary reason Jane Eyre was on my to-read list, and so naturally I was bitterly disappointed that, what is arguably the most interesting bit of the story, only has roughly six pages dedicated to it. Hence why I prefer Wide Sargasso Sea (plus it’s a significantly shorter read, so it gets extra points for fewer pages because I’m a lazy shit).

Wide Sargasso Sea is an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre told from Bertha’s perspective that makes you entirely rethink how much you can trust Rochester’s side of things in the original classic.

Elaborating on details about Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway as she’s known in Wide Sargasso Sea) which Jane Eyre briefly mentions; this story starts with Antoinette’s isolated youth in Jamaica, being raised on a dilapidated former sugar plantation by her widowed mother, Annette, who is struggling mentally in isolation and holds a growing resentment for Antoinette.

Here, Annette remarries Englishman, Mr. Mason – the man who eventually ‘cons’ Rochester into marrying Antoinette. The book details Rochester and Antoinette’s (whom he renames Bertha) brief honeymoon together to Dominica, his progressing hatred for his new wife and ultimately settling into Thornfield Hall while keeping Antoinette’s existence a secret. 

Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

So bit of context for this fictional post-apocalyptic society: the triffids are these man-size plants that are capable of moving around and have a dangerous sting, and were just an everyday part of life in this society.

The main character, Bill Masen, was a ‘triffidologist’ before everything went to shit, who was recovering in hospital from being temporarily blinded by a triffid sting. The book begins with Bill feeling salty because he has a bandage over his eyes and everyone else is talking about how incredible and once-in-a-lifetime this meteor shower that’s happening right now is.

The next day, everyone who watched this mysterious meteor shower (so the bulk of mankind) has permanently gone blind, and now Bill’s frightened but also slightly smug and now the triffids suddenly harness the chance to do some evil bidding.

This book is a lot of survival, and the minority who do have sight attempting to create safe communities in the countryside while they wait for news or help from other countries which may never come. It’s an alright book, but be warned there’s like three pages in the middle where Wilfred mansplains why women are terrible and not helpful to the rebuilding effort – go fuck yourself Wilfred! Good luck repopulating by yourself there Wilfred!

April is the Cruelest Month

Knowing that this is definitely my last year of uni ever (seriously I can’t stress this enough – I’m never coming back for more of this shit!!!) means that my mind has recently started replaying the highlight reel of past procrastination, kind of like the flashback episode of a sitcom (particularly moments from my undergrad, that was pro level).

It’s all pretty embarrassing really, here’s a list of genuine things I’ve done over the years while procrastinating,

  • Got mad good at computer mah-jong and solitaire
  • Decided now was the best time to learn as much of Poe’s The Raven as I could off by heart (I can still get up to verse four though!)
  • Decided now was the best time to get back into knitting again
  • Spent the best part of a day carefully hand-picking the arils out of pomegranates
  • Watched the music video to Another Brick in the Wall a bunch of times then wondered why I wasn’t exactly feeling motivated to finish that essay

Anyway the reason I’m bringing this up is that, having a reminisce over all the self-inflicted pain which naturally comes with procrastination, has also got me thinking a lot about T.S Eliot – in particular the poem he is arguably most renowned for, The Wasteland.

While Eliot’s great line, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’  from Four Quartets may seem like a more appropriate sentiment for talk on procrastination; The Wasteland‘s morbid exploration into the futility of modern existence, and the personal suffering behind the poem’s creation, can easily be applied to procrastination. Plus surprisingly, The Wasteland is even able to give an unintentionally optimistic perspective on treading through the shittier times (or it’s likely that maybe I’m being way too positive, it is pretty bleak).

First published in 1922, The Wasteland traces modernity’s descent into hell in five parts, and was the piece which first gained Eliot attention as a poet (interestingly James Joyce’s Ulysses was published earlier that year – my brain needs to get a whole lot more bigger and impressive before I attempt to read that though).

Throughout The Wasteland, hordes of tragic figures are mechanically walking through life,

‘I had not thought death had undone so many,     

Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet’  

Eliot warns of culture’s progressing erosion and the monotony to be faced trapped in ‘the wasteland’. This theme of dredging through tedium is comparable to that feeling of just wishing a task was over, to the point where you almost feel detached from the initial reason why you’re doing this work.

Yet conversely, these words are also a challenge to be better. To find purpose and beauty, and not settle for sleepwalking through your existence. In my case, I shouldn’t overlook the fact that even the most tedious tasks, form part of something greater that I care deeply about.

Going deeper, and extending beyond the poem’s words; Eliot famously credited his tumultuous eighteen year marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood for ‘…the state of mind out of which came The Wasteland’.

An awareness that the darkest point in T.S Eliot life, sparked what is arguably the most significant piece of his literary legacy, puts present unhappiness towards tedium into perspective. Yes, maybe the present feels like a struggle – but maybe by living through it, something truly brilliant will derive out of it?

[Bit of an interesting fun-fact I learnt while doing some note-taking for this post: the owners of Eliot’s old family beach house in Massachusetts claim that its haunted by Eliot’s ghost. In life, T.S was a bit of a prude, so I like to think that his ghost only appears in the throes of passion to give you a judgemental glare

Books which paint a grim future #we’reallreallfucked

Last year we all had to face the crushing disappoint that it was 2015 and the scum who wrote Back to the Future II had massively over-estimated how far hover-board technology was going to progress (we all still have to use non-hovering type transport like suckers and it leaves a bitter, bitter taste).

But if you want to be glass half full, at least we’re not currently residing in one of these dystopian societies from 20th century literature (*the key-word is ‘currently’ there. If there’s full anarchy by next week I don’t want to look like an idiot).

I’ll try not to give spoilers here:

Handmaids Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985)

For me out of all these books listed, the state of Gilead sounded like the worst future hypothetical, totalitarian society to live in – specifically if you’re a woman.

It’s ruled by the idea of positive restriction, and the narrator known only as ‘Offred’ is of the first generation of women who is stripped of every freedom and valued solely on her ability to reproduce.

What’s particularly frightening is how Offred has no way of knowing what is happening in the outside world as the media cannot be trusted and she is not permitted to watch the news.

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932)

[It was quite a few years ago that I read Brave New World so forgive me it isn’t as fresh in my head]

In the World State, humans are mass produced in hatcheries and are conditioned to be the perfect consumer and to instinctively hate books and nature. Family, love and monogamy are now antiquated ideas and ‘everybody belongs to everyone else’ (a quote I’m sure Huxley sometimes bought out if he wanted to initiate a key party).

There is also the Savage Reservation where people from the World State can visit to be reminded of how good progress is.

Cats Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut, 1963)

In Cats Cradle the three grown-up children of an eccentric scientist each have a piece of his final invention ‘Ice-Nine’ which has the power of freezing all the worlds water. Most of it is set on the island of San Lorenzo where everyone follows an odd religion called ‘Bokononism’, which is pretty much a glorified foot fetish club (there’s a lot about the importance of sole-to-sole contact, its a strange book).

A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)

This is one of my favourite books, but I do have a bone to pick with it. At the start the main character, Alex Delarge, successfully cracks onto two girls using what it possibly the shittiest pick-up technique in history: the gist of the quote is ‘Come with uncle…you are invited’. What a load of false advertising, you couldn’t score your own hand with that line.

A Clockwork Orange is set in a future where the youths are excessively out of control (a terrifying world where A Current Affair doesn’t need to exaggerate as much). When Alex finally ends up in prison he agrees to undergo a kind of aversion therapy which leaves him feeling ill at the thought of violence and incapable of committing any act of violence.

Seemingly it sounds positive, but who wants to live in a society which can take away your ability to choose?

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953)

In this future, books are prohibited but few people care, and firemen burn books. Televisions have become so big in this future that they’ve become rooms with four screens as walls and people refer to the television characters as their families.

Plus if you’re one of the few people who decide to piss the firemen off they send a large mechanical dog after you (kinda like a nastier version of Clifford the big red dog).

1984 (George Orwell, 1949)

This is true – there was an incident where Amazon removed all copies of 1984 from its Kindles after realising their version was a pirated text; so readers rebooted their kindles to find that 1984 had disappeared.

It was all a little interesting, and the kind of thing that possibly sparked some great conspiracy theories (it may be a sign of censorship to come, and I bet the lizard people who live underground were somehow behind it).

1984 is set in Oceania and told from Winston Smith’s perspective. Being a book of its time, aspects of Oceania are meant to mirror the Stalinist system. The Party controls everything: it rewrites history through censorship, monitors every action through telescreens, a new type of speech has been created to eliminate certain words, there is no way of knowing if you can trust anybody, and if you commit thought-crime you’re massively in the shit (I hear that sometimes they even force people to watch celebrity Big Brother in Room 101). Also if you’re still not convinced that Oceania isn’t pretty grim, sex is also forbidden.