Molecular Mimicry, Realism, and the Collective Memory of Pandemics. Narrative Strategies of COVID-19 Fiction


  • Birgit Däwes


From Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) to Jim Shepard’s Phase Six (2021), contemporary pandemic fiction relies largely on narrative strategies of continuity and the familiar, including authenticity or “reality effects” (Roland Barthes), reliable narrators, focalizers with backgrounds in medicine or science, and a structural pattern of what Priscilla Wald has termed the “outbreak narrative.” This paper reads conventional narrative patterns of pandemic fiction figuratively as a form of “molecular mimicry,” akin to the biomedical strategy by which viruses override immune systems and gain access to the interior of cells. Like Trojan horses, I argue, frameworks of narrative reliability and authority tend to be more successful in wheeling in specific normative representations, which stabilize given hierarchies. By contrast, The Decameron Project (2020), a “collective narrative” of twenty-nine short stories written in response to the COVID-19 situation in 2020, exhibits a significant increase in narrative and cognitive uncertainty. My analysis of stories by David Mitchell, Liz Moore, Margaret Atwood, Charles Yu, and others traces various functions of unstable narration through multilayered realities, unreliability, intertextuality, and self-reflexiveness, ultimately uncovering what may be a literary analogy to mRNA vaccines. The Decameron Project, I argue, not only diagnoses a growing unease with discourses of tacit objectivity, but it marks an important contribution to the emerging cultural memory of the COVID-19 pandemic.