Jhen you thought the wave of Covid novels had passed, comes a new twist. Examples so far range from Sarah Hall burnt coatwho succeeded because he looked at the pandemic from the sidelines and created something rich and strange out of it, à la Sarah Moss The fellwhich it didn’t because it was an overly faithful rendition of an immediate past that we all wanted to forget.
But it’s the immediate past that colors our expectations for the future, and in Clare Pollard’s funny and sharp debut novel, Delphi, the anonymous narrator is “sick of the future. So far with the future. It’s 2020 and it’s being beaten by predictions of new epidemics, the extinction of AI and the collapse of civilization. “No one had to face so much of a future.”
Our wife, a classics teacher, translator and mother, shuttles between the past, represented by the myths of classical civilizations, and the future, represented by her fears for her son, isolated by distance learning and ” watching these YouTube videos by silly man-kids”.
And when she’s not afraid, she’s bored: “sick of being in my head, or of looking at books or screens, that is to say of being in someone’s head. ‘other “. But some heads are more interesting than others, and Delphi is ripe with references and allusions, from the oracle of Delphi to Cassandra, the daughter of Troy who was cursed by Apollo to be always in disbelief.
Still Delphi is not just a Covid novel; it is also about how a given historical moment like the pandemic can connect us to the past and to the universal. The lines Pollard draws between then and now aren’t always subtle (“Domestic violence is on the rise. Did you know Hercules actually killed his family?”), but if you don’t like that one , there will be another one along in a minute. It’s a hungry book, looking everywhere and seeing everything, leaping from Hilma af Klint Altarpiece no. 1 to Lizzo’s Juice in consecutive sentences.
One of the themes is seeing the future: how we always wanted to know what would happen next, and how the need grows greater the more we fear it. The narrator sees a psychic for life advice, even though she knows she is only “paying[ing] a shitty independent actress [to] make believe that it is destiny”. She reads the I Chingbut “I don’t need a Ouija board, I just gently touch my fingers to the Twitter timeline and see what it can say that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end”.
Which leads to a second theme: the world as a witness to our lives. The internet, she says, has “filled the void left by the decline of religion.” Who needs God watching you when now we have the world watching? “No diabolical tweet will go unread and unpunished.”
Books are also witnesses to our lives and our times. Some go towards the universal, others towards the contemporary: Delphi overlaps both. Sometimes timestamped hyper-specific content — like the photo of Donald Trump’s church — has made me wonder if a book like this has built-in obsolescence and how it will read in a few years. But does it matter now? After all, as the book tells us, citing for once not real classic sources but the movie blockbuster Troy“We’ll never come back here again.”