A novel response to the virus

When they write the book on this pandemic, what will the first sentence be?

Gary Marlowe
6 min readApr 10, 2020

In times like this, I think all of us are seeking a little light relief, a moment or two to distract ourselves from all that’s going around us, or perhaps more accurately, all that’s going on outside the confines of our homes.

We hear a lot of complaining, a lot of worrying, and at 8 o’clock each night, a lot of clapping. In most houses, the loudest noise comes from the soundtrack of The Tiger King or Money Heist, the two big quarantine hits so many of us have been binge-watching to take our minds off of the new reality we find ourselves in.

But when we look back, when the book is written about the time we’re living in, what will be said? How will we begin to tell the story of this pandemic?

A few days ago, a tweet by someone I did not know, let alone follow, caught my eye. His name was Bill Grueskin, he’s a Professor at the Columbia Journalism School, and this is what he tweeted:

What’s the first sentence of the best novel that will be written about this epidemic?

The responses that flowed had me literally laughing out loud. Many were predictable, but many were so good I thought they deserved to be shared. But rather than simply retweeting Bill’s tweet and its thread, I felt some of those ‘first sentences’ were worthy of grouping together so that instead of appearing randomly, there was some coherence to their subject matter.

I’ll begin with Bill’s own suggestion:

“It is a wondrous and joyous thing, this voyage that lies ahead for us,” Fred said to his wife as they boarded the Diamond Princess for the dream vacation that cost him most of his 401K.

Not surprisingly, many referenced Donald Trump:

Tenacious Eye @TenaciousEye “November 8, 2016…a day that will live in infamy.”

Mary Grady @elkabong37 “It began with a seemingly forgettable ride down a golden escalator.”

The A-A-ron who done messed up @aaronkrubio “The lesser of two evils, you know, I mean what’s the worst that could happen?” he thought as he cast his vote for Trump.

Jody Lanard MD @EIDgeek “Fifty years ago today: He cut math class to sneak a smoke, thinking: “I’m never gonna have to know about exponential growth and doubling times.”

Keep Calm & Stay Inside @foggybreeze “Not understanding the seriousness of the phrase “asymptomatic carrier” was a stiff price to pay for zoning out in freshman biology.”

Ron Pinto @rwp1000 “The President sat at the Resolute Desk staring blankly at a chart of the viruses viscous spread he could not comprehend.”

Becca Rolfe @RebeccaRolfe13 “When he said he could kill a person in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it, we didn’t take it seriously.”

Eric Garwood @ericgar62 The president was undecided and his advisers were equally split on the next move. There was trouble ahead, and the right call had to be made. Six iron? Seven? “Seven,” he said. “A strong club.”

Tom Shafer @TomShafShafer “I know it sounds trite, but it started exactly the way every disaster movie starts, with the government not listening to the scientists.”

Dominar Wonko the Irritable @MWonko42 “Nobody ever predicted something like this could happen,” said the angry man behind the podium less than two years after he fired the people that not only predicted something like this, but were preparing for it.”

Jesper Weigner @jesperweigner “He mostly ignored the hyperventilating predictions of impending doom, but the refrigerated truck doubling as a morgue in Queens finally got his attention.

@pattykazUSA “He watched with sadistic glee as they died one by one, a pandemic he could have slowed, but instead chose to embrace.”

Maya Golden-Krasner @Maya4EJ “Though exposed many times, the President never fell ill. The virus can only survive in a human host. That’s when we knew.”

Douglas Blackmon @douglasblackmon “Even those who once claimed to adore him could see that this day, this week, this terror was far beyond the meagre capacities of a minor entertainer — a has-been playboy elected only to gall the smug elites. Now he was killing them.”

Peter Ramsey @pramsey342 “At some point, he thought, the number of deaths must outpace the number of lies, but it seemed that point had still not come.”

Anne Arbor @Anne_Arbor “Only a million Americans died,” he shouted. The crowd roared its approval. “Nobody else could have done this. And we kept unemployment down to 25 percent. Who else could have done that? No one!”

Amy @AmyW36 “As the guards unlocked the handcuffs from his chubby orange fingers, now stained by traces of the last application of bronze foundation he had applied that morning, we weighed our task; never before had a president been imprisoned on charges of negligent homicide.”

Some referenced the President’s son-in-law:

Greg Dworkin @DemFromCT “Jared thought he knew what he was doing.”

David Kaye @davidakaye “It was supposed to be our stockpile, it was supposed to be our stockpile,” Jared murmured, mantra-like, as the guard slammed shut the cold metal gate of his cell.”

One topically referenced The Tiger King:

Sharona Light @justanurse25 “No one expected the hero of a global pandemic to be a gay polygamist with a mullet who owned a private big cat zoo, but he was exactly the hero the world needed.”

Some played on the famous opening lines penned by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities:

Norman Ornstein @NormOrnstein “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of presidents.”

Dave Matt @davematt88 “It was the worst of times. And then everything went to hell.”

Debra K Creates @DebraKirschner “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, depending on whether or not you believed Fox News.”

Toilet paper was another favoured topic:

Walter Shapiro @MrWalterShapiro “At the reading of the will, the family on Zoom was shocked when it was Harold, the scapegrace son, who inherited the 79 rolls of toilet paper.”

@wyer2222 “Every morning I hug my toilet paper, thankful it’s not in short supply. This wasn’t the case not so long ago. Let me tell you the story of the toilet paper epidemic.”

Bob Brussack @bobincork “The funny thing is, nobody ever found out what happened to the toilet paper.”

Many focused on a dystopian future:

Rabia O’Chaudry @rabiasquared “Impenetrable walls went up on both the northern and southern borders in a matter of weeks, and at the time we did not know that they were meant to keep us in.”

Carrie Fitzgerald @carriemf “He walked into the hospital wearing a mask his grandmother had sewn for him before she died.”

Margaret Sullivan @sulliview “Her last dinner out shouldn’t have been memorable; still, she thought about it longingly, even dreamt about it, until the day she died, which was three weeks later, in a Central Park tent funded by Billy Graham’s son.”

The 60s at 60s @the_60s_at_60 “The line was exactly a mile long, and none of the people standing in it — there were exactly 52 of them — seemed to mind.”

Just Marilyn @JustMarilyn7 “The old man coughed quietly as he shuffled down the deserted streets of New York City. He no longer wore his ‘Rona mask because there was no one left to infect. A tattered Wash Your Hands poster still hung defiantly in one of the broken glass windows.”

25th_Amendment @Amendment_25 “When it finally did end, when at long last the last body was placed in the ground and the cold dirt shovelled on top of the coffin, when finally we could leave our houses and embrace, in that moment, for a split second, it really did feel like it went away, like magic.”

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s best flowers and gardens.



Gary Marlowe

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people