By Mark Alpert
It’s so quiet in Manhattan now, I can hear the birds singing.
Before the new coronavirus spread across the country, I heard birdsong only in the early morning, at five or six o’clock, when the sky was just starting to brighten. But now I hear it all day long. I had no idea there were so many birds in the city.
This week on Trevor Noah’s Daily Social Distancing Show, I heard him joke about how the world’s animals are going to look back on this period as a Golden Age for non-human creatures. “Remember the spring of 2020? When all the people hid indoors? Damn, that was a great time.”
It’s all a matter of perspective. The situation in my own perch — a seventh-floor apartment on the Upper West Side — isn’t so bad. My wife and I can work from home. Our kids are home from college and taking their classes online.
But this pandemic has highlighted, in a very ghastly way, the fundamental inequities of American society. A disproportionate number of the disadvantaged are employed in service industries that put them at a much higher risk of infection. That includes bus drivers, nursing-home aides, corrections officers, supermarket employees, and all the people who toil in Amazon’s warehouses. As a result, the poorest areas of New York City have been devastated the most by Covid-19. Particularly hard-hit are several neighborhoods in Queens where many new immigrants live in close quarters. (You can go to this site to see the death tolls.)
How should novelists respond to this crisis? Do we want to spend our entire writing careers seeking only to entertain and titillate our readers? Or should we make an attempt, at least once or twice in our lives, to do what fiction does best: make our readers see and feel the horrible unfairness by putting them in our suffering characters’ shoes?
Let me propose as a paragon one of the most successful novelists of all time, Charles Dickens. In all his books, Dickens was a superb entertainer. He was a master of suspense and sentiment. His nineteenth-century American readers were so enthralled by his plots that when a ship came to New York bearing copies of the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, people gathered at the docks to yell a crucial question at the arriving ship’s crew (who’d presumably read the book’s last chapter while they were at sea): “Is Little Nell dead?”
But Dickens was also a social-justice warrior. When he was twelve years old, his family spiraled downward into dire poverty; his father was forced into a debtor’s prison in 1824, and Charles had to leave school and go to work at a rat-infested warehouse where he spent ten hours a day pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. This experience colored nearly all of Dickens’s novels. It gave him the inspiration for a huge cast of fictional characters, from the street urchins in Oliver Twist to the sad debtors in Little Dorrit. And along with the plot twists and shocking revelations, Dickens always made his political views clear in his novels. With an undying passion, he excoriated child labor and debtor’s prisons and a host of other evils that oppressed England’s poor. And thanks in part to his efforts, English reformers succeeded in outlawing some of the worst capitalist practices.
I would also argue that Dickens’s political passions made his novels more memorable than books that strive only to entertain. I read Bleak House thirty years ago, and over the decades I pretty much forgot the novel’s Byzantine plot. But I’ll never forget the character named Jo, a young homeless boy who works as a London street sweeper and dies of pneumonia after enduring hundreds of pages of abuse. Dickens movingly describes Jo’s torturous death, and then the great author steps away from the narrative and addresses the reader directly:
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
That last sentence certainly strikes a new chord during the present crisis. The poor are dying around us, every day, in much greater numbers than the rich, in ambulances and emergency rooms and intensive-care units all across this divided city.
But I want to get back to the songbirds. In addition to the hundreds of unseen birds whistling outside, there’s now a budgie cheeping in a cage in my daughter’s bedroom (see photo above). This bird was brought to our apartment by my daughter’s girlfriend, who’s living with us for the duration of the pandemic. The budgie’s name is Peeps, and at odd hours he lives up to his moniker by peeping nonstop. My wife calls it a Peep-a-thon.
We never had a pet before, and this one is only temporary. Nevertheless, I’ve grown fond of Peeps. His cheeping seems hopeful. It makes me think of the story in Genesis (Chapter 8, Verses 6 through 12) about Noah and his birds. Here’s the King James version:
6 And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made:
7 And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
8 Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;
9 But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.
10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;
11 And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
12 And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.
Sitting in my apartment, waiting out the pandemic, I feel like Noah in his ark. The whole world is flooded with pain and sorrow. I can’t see the future yet, and it feels like the tide of death will keep rising forever. But the birdsong says something different: Be patient. Just wait. Sooner or later, the dove will return with a sign of redemption.