“Phase Six,” by Jim Shepard (Alfred A. Knopf)
After more than a year of living with the devastation of the coronavirus, you might think you’re not ready for a fictional pandemic — but you’d be wrong. Jim Shepard’s new novel, “Phase Six,” is a fast-paced, suspenseful story about what happens when a different microbe is unleashed on the world.
It begins in Greenland, where 11-year-old Aleq and his best friend, Malik, trespass onto a mining site and are unwittingly exposed to a long-buried pathogen that within days will wipe out their remote settlement and spread across the globe.
Curiously, Aleq remains immune, making him patient zero — the focus of a sprawling medical investigation led by two feisty women from the CDC. Soon he is whisked off to a lab in the U.S., where he struggles with the realization that he may be responsible for the deaths of everyone he ever loved.
Strangely enough, Shepard began the book four years ago after reading about a boy in Siberia killed by rejuvenated anthrax spores that had been frozen in a reindeer carcass. When the book was being edited last year, he added some COVID-19 references just as the virus was starting its rampage.
Shepard has long excelled at writing about arcane subjects. Here he also manages to keep his human protagonists and their complicated, contradictory emotions front and center. While some of the relationships don’t quite add up, his mordant observations about the flawed response to the fictional outbreak — on the part of governments, politicians, the health insurance industry and the internet — offer a timely critique of what went wrong in real life.
Still, Shepard is not a polemicist or a hack. If anything, he’s a moralist, deeply concerned about the looming catastrophe of global warming and the lethal consequences of a society that puts profits above everything, giving mining companies an incentive to drill in places they don’t belong. So, while the novel is thrilling, it’s less of a thriller than a love story — an ode to family, friends, lovers, hard work and the beautiful, heartbreaking innocence of childhood.
It begins with four pithy epigraphs, including from Mike Tyson (“Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth”) and Louis Pasteur (“Gentlemen, it is the microbes who will have the last word.”) Were it not so frequently invoked, he might well have added E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” — because one of his themes is that for better or worse, we are all connected.