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Review: If you can bear to read one pandemic dystopia in 2021, this should probably be it

Author Jim Shepard with three beagles.
Jim Shepard’s latest novel is “Phase Six.”
(Barry Goldstein)

On the Shelf

Phase Six

By Jim Shepard
Knopf: 256 pages, $27

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It is only by a catastrophic coincidence that “Phase Six,” Jim Shepard’s stellar new novel set in a terrible near future, feels so timely. Shepard has created a fictional pandemic that sends waves of illness and death sweeping across the world. Though “Phase Six” was almost entirely completed before the current pandemic became a full-fledged disaster, the novel pushes on a number of sharp wounds created by extremely recent history, including the sensation that death lurks everywhere, merciless.

This lurking is in fact a recurring theme in the precise but eerily nonchalant brand of historical fiction that has earned Shepard a devoted readership. In his previous novel, “The Book of Aron,” a young Jewish boy in Warsaw tries to make his way as a smuggler under the noses of the Nazis. In “Sans Farine,” Shepard’s best short story, from his collection “Like You’d Understand Anyway,” a French Revolution executioner is bizarrely ambivalent about all the head-chopping he’s tasked with. In his latest novel, the too-real horror is in the future, though it feels like the present.

“Phase Six” mainly concerns two characters: Aleq, a young boy from Ilimanaq, a small settlement in Greenland where the disease is believed to have originated; and Jeannine, an epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control who is dispatched to learn what she can on the ground. Shepard tells the story of his future pandemic through their perspectives as well as those of Danice, a colleague of Jeannine’s along for the assignment, and Valerie, a doctor in Rochester, N.Y.

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The book opens with Aleq hanging out with his best friend, Malik. They find themselves at a site where a mining company is drilling. Aleq finds a beautiful rock, “glassy smooth on one side from the polish Ice Age glaciers had given it eleven thousand years earlier.” His attention is drawn to a cavity. This innocent curiosity is the tragic inciting incident: “A cluster of molecules that had previously thrived in the respiratory tract of an early variant of the Bering goose … had been reintroduced to the air and the warming sun.”

By page 30, Aleq’s friends and family are all dead. Shepard ends the first section with a reference to a 2006 Global Public Health study in which 90% of epidemiologists predicted a pandemic that could kill more than 150 million people within one or two generations.

The cover of the novel "Phase Six" by Jim Shepard
(Knopf)

This is representative of Shepard’s method: We are mostly locked tightly into the personal experiences of key players but occasionally offered a wide-angle view, usually as a way of twisting the knife. This technique works better in some moments than others. Passing mentions of news coverage and political squabbles feel somewhat toothless and tame. Descriptions of Fox News’ paranoid rumor-mongering — “Were the Democrats trying to mandate infected homeless be brought into otherwise safe health centers?” — are neither surprising nor particularly insightful. But more basic dispatches arrive as painful shocks. By day 35, there are potentially 14 million infections. A hospital in Hong Kong has only “enough healthy staff remaining to care for the hospital’s own sick personnel,” so it shuts down.

Yet the most powerful moments come at close range. When Jeannine and Danice are surveying Ilimanaq in search of information and survivors, they find the settlement’s only nurse in her home, her head “black with flies.” When they find Aleq, the only one left, his repeated request is that they bury his grandparents. Danice, overcome, turns to her colleagues and says, “It just seems impossible that it would be everyone.” As the book progresses, it starts to feel not only possible but inevitable.

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This growing sense of foreboding is compounded by the way fate is meted out in “Phase Six.” Shepard toys with thriller conventions by offering full names and backstories, laying down the expectation that they’re in it for the long haul — only to have them fall ill and die pages later. Nobody is safe.

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Making matters worse is how little any of the doctors know or can figure out about the disease. Its lethality rate is around 40%, though nobody knows why it was higher in Ilimanaq. It acts like a bacterial infection but there is no trace of bacteria. Jeannine and Danice spend a lot of time on the phone theorizing. Valerie tries to be optimistic when talking to another doctor at her hospital. “She told him that maybe that was their advantage: that they wouldn’t have any biases. ‘Biases?’ he asked. ‘We don’t have any ‘insights.’” Shepard imbues such passages with procedural intrigue, then often closes them with the discovery that things might be even worse than imagined.

These discussions are among the sites of COVID-19’s unwelcome intrusion on the world of the novel. Retroactively added references to the ongoing pandemic land with an ugly thud. Most often it’s inserted as a historical marker: Events are described as “Before COVID-19” or “even after.” Each instance could be pulled from the book without changing anything else. You can see the dilemma for Shepard: Its absence would be as conspicuous to current readers as its presence. Shepard always does rigorous research for his fiction — the acknowledgments at the end of “Phase Six” include a long list of sources and a note of thanks to research assistant Gabrielle Giles. Omitting COVID-19 may have felt like a betrayal of his occupational commitment. Nevertheless, the most direct references feel the least helpful in making sense of the tragic last year and our potentially tragic future.

This hiccup, however, does not dim the insight and power of Shepard’s moving portraits of characters who live through, die from or work to stop the pandemic. “Phase Six” cultivates an agonizing sense of dread — the same sense of dread millions of people have been trying to escape for a year. It’s an impressive work of literature, if you can find a way to bear it.

Babendir is a critic and fiction writer living in Somerville, Mass.

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