Eli Saslow On Coronavirus

This week, I have been captivated by a series in the Washington Post by Eli Saslow, author of Rising Out of Hatred. In his series entitled Voices from the Pandemic, Saslow shares the stories of Americans affected by COVID-19. Each piece is constructed as a personal narrative “as told to” Eli Saslow–the author’s hand appears silent, but in fact the pieces have been beautifully shaped so that each subject’s voice and story ring forth from the page.

This week’s piece comes from Tony Green, a politically conservative gay man from Dallas. Green describes how a small family get-together became a locus of viral spread and how his family suffered. Notice the foreshadowing in this opening statement:

The party was my idea. That’s what I can’t get over. Well, I mean, it wasn’t even a party — more like a get-together. There were just six of us, okay? My parents, my partner, and my partner’s parents. We’d been locked down for months at that point in Texas, and the governor had just come out and said small gatherings were probably okay… I thought the worst was behind us.

Green goes on to describe how the virus spread out in waves among the family–his father-in-law, for example, “got sick the next day, after he’d already left and gone to Austin to witness the birth of his first grandchild.” The story is told in a just-the-facts style that allows the devastating nature of those facts to speak for themselves.

Green’s story could spark behavior change, particularly as we go into the holidays. On a personal note, this will be my son’s first Christmas. As much as I would wish for him to be surrounded by family this year, I fear bringing the plague into our houses. Tony Green’s story reminds me to heed that fear.

The same kind of foreshadowing appears in the narrative from 16-year-old Matthew Graveson, who says “I thought kids weren’t supposed to get the virus as bad. I thought it wasn’t common for kids to infect other people and pass it on.” (Graveson ultimately survived his infection thanks to ECMO–the most intensive form of life support that medicine can offer.) Saslow’s technique of showing how the narrator’s views have changed subtly urges readers to consider our own ideas about the pandemic, and how they may be mistaken.

Saslow’s masterful technique makes the interviewer-artist seem to disappear. In fact, to compile these narratives, he must have spent many hours with his subjects and winnowed those hours of tape down to a few taut paragraphs. The effort of building an interviewer-subject relationship that allows such a gripping and intimate narrative to flow forth, for example, is not recorded here. I am reminded of a scene from Ann Patchett’s novel The Magician’s Assistant, in which the assistant describes the supreme physical effort required to appear to float effortlessly in the air. Here, Saslow performs the literary equivalent of such a magic trick, ushering his subjects’ voices forward as if from thin air.

I highly recommend spending some time with the Voices from the Pandemic series. Comment below to join the conversation.

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