Phase Six by Jim Shepard

I saw Phase Six in the “New Fiction” section of the library and was intrigued.  But the first time, I wasn’t sure how badly I wanted to read a book about a pandemic, albeit mostly written before COVID-19, during an actual pandemic. But I changed my mind and went ahead and read it.

Publisher

In a tiny settlement on the west coast of Greenland, 11-year-old Aleq and his best friend, frequent trespassers at a mining site exposed to mountains of long-buried and thawing permafrost, carry what they pick up back into their village, and from there Shepard’s harrowing and deeply moving story follows Aleq, one of the few survivors of the initial outbreak, through his identification and radical isolation as the likely index patient. While he shoulders both a crushing guilt for what he may have done and the hopes of a world looking for answers, we also meet two Epidemic Intelligence Service investigators dispatched from the CDC–Jeannine, an epidemiologist and daughter of Algerian immigrants, and Danice, an M.D. and lab wonk. As they attempt to head off the cataclysm, Jeannine–moving from the Greeland hospital overwhelmed with the first patients to a Level 4 high-security facility in the Rocky Mountains–does what she can to sustain Aleq. Both a chamber piece of multiple intimate perspectives and a more omniscient glimpse into the megastructures (political, cultural, and biological) that inform such a disaster, the novel reminds us of the crucial bonds that form in the midst of catastrophe, as a child and several hypereducated adults learn what it means to provide adequate support for those they love. In the process, they celebrate the precious worlds they might lose, and help to shape others that may survive.

My Take

It turned out to be both tender and frightening with an, at times, odd mix of science and relationships.

The pandemic aspect is all too realistic and unsettling in the era of COVID. The tender part deals with the relationships of those looking to solve the science behind the pandemic; particularly two CDC researchers. It was spare and episodic with little vignettes highlighting the challenges of maintaining relationships as a doctor, researcher, etc. with the added push-pull of the pandemic. I enjoyed it but wasn’t wowed by it.

In many ways the emotional heart of the story is about female relationships, despite the male author. I think what threw me a bit was that the book starts almost like a thriller (SPOILER ALERT: mysterious pathogen leading to the deaths of almost an entire village) and then switches to a focus on relationships and interior lives. Plus, for me, too much science talk, even if it made sense given the characters, gave it an odd feel too.

Interesting and well written but not quite my cup of tea. But if you are looking for a fictional account of those on the front lines, to use a cliche, of fighting a pandemic this is the book.

Other Reviews

Dwight Garner in his NYT reviews gets at what frustrated me:

After its creepy and bravura opening, “Phase Six” — the title refers to the World Health Organization’s highest pandemic level — stalls. It’s as if, having achieved escape velocity, Shepard turned off his engines. What begins as a brainy potboiler, the kind of book you’d have felt lucky to find in one of those spinning drugstore paperback racks, becomes ponderous.

[…]

The second half is also about Danice and Jeannine’s quest to find and identify the virus, which has become known in the media as Respiratory Arrest Syndrome, or RAS. This is interesting, so far as it goes. But their long talks about the nature of humanity and microbes grow flavorless after a while. The world outside is burning and we’re almost entirely stuck inside.

Ron Charles at the WaPo:

But overall, “Phase Six” is an odd act of genetic manipulation that results in what might be called Apocalypse Minimalism. Beautifully drawn episodes of private anguish are interrupted by quick-cut scenes and potted explanations of the way viruses and bacteria kill. You can spot strains of Michael Crichton in these thoughtful pages like panther paws grafted onto a lab-created sheep. That could satisfy fans of cinematic thrillers and literary fiction, but I suspect the clash of tones and approaches will, instead, disappoint both audiences. There simply isn’t room here to accommodate what this novel wants to do. The thriller elements feel familiar and undercooked; the personal stories are rushed and cramped.

Chicago Review of Books had a different take:

Shepard’s exhaustive research bibliography can be seen as a chorus of Cassandras that he has now joined. And isn’t that our age: one of snowballing Cassandras, gaining numbers, gaining volume, but still ignored. Reading Phase Six is letting Shepard invite you to join the chorus. Who could be blamed after this year, after the past four years, for declining? But if there’s anything this book makes clear, it’s the costs of ignoring those voices. Phase Six is many things: a touching humanist portrait of those coping with disaster; a biting critique of chronically failing governments and institutions; and a compelling, if horrifying,biological thought experiment. In any other year it would be a brilliant accomplishment on its own. This year in particular, it may serve as our most potent warning to date.

So do you want to read a book about a pandemic during one?  I can’t blame you if you don’t want “All the narrative propulsion of escapist fiction without the escape” as Kirkus put it.

Although, the LA Times argued: “If you can bear to read one pandemic dystopia in 2021, this should probably be it.”

It was a quick, if unnerving, read if that helps. Caught between thriller and literary fiction but thought provoking at the very least.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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