I didn’t plan to review Jim Shepard’s new novel. I had another book in mind.
But then I picked up “Phase Six” on a whim and devoured the first 100 pages before I knew what was happening. If I’d been in a bookstore, I’d have sat on the floor. So I set the other book aside. This turned out to be a mistake: In its second half, alas, this one rolls over and expires.
“Phase Six” is a pandemic novel, one that Shepard wrote before the outbreak of Covid-19. It’s about events that transpire after two boys trespass on a mining site in Greenland. They inhale something unholy in the thawing permafrost and unwittingly carry it back to their village. Within a few weeks, a new virus — or a very old one — has saturated the planet.
Like a lot of people, I have a sweet tooth for apocalyptic narratives. Shepard efficiently gets his off the ground. Things get dark quickly. He nails the scientific details, but also the cultural ones.
In Lawrence Wright’s pandemic novel, “The End of October,” which came out a year ago, Taylor Swift and Brad Pitt die. In Shepard’s book, something more unimaginable happens: Amazon is unable to ship (though Alexa can still list where riots are happening in real time).
“Phase Six” bends in a new direction when two women who work for the C.D.C.’s Epidemic Intelligence Service arrive in Greenland. Danice is a doctor and a lab geek; Jeannine, the daughter of Algerian immigrants, is an epidemiologist. Together they set to work on saving the planet.
Danice and Jeannine can resemble, with their sarcastic, pinging dialogue, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey in Tyvek suits. They bicker and deplore their love lives. “Phase Six” passes the Bechdel test on nearly every page.
Jeannine, who senses that some people resent her authority because of her dark skin, has a mordant streak. She remembers a woman telling her that, in rich countries, epidemics “always began when the first white person got sick.”
She texts a friend the observation that “for most people the worst news probably wasn’t so much the collapse of order and infrastructure as it was the possibility that the party was over. No free Wi-Fi, she wrote — that was when the survivors were going to envy the dead.”
Orwell got it wrong, Jeannine also thinks. Observing the world’s fumbling response to the epidemic, she asks: “What were all those dystopias she’d had to read about in high school, concerning the individual trampled by the state, talking about? Why hadn’t anyone imagined the chaos of no one in charge?”
As anyone who’s followed his career is aware, Shepard is a crisp and intelligent and reliable writer. His short stories are especially worthy. Try “Sans Farine,” about a disaffected executioner in revolutionary France, or “Atomic Tourism,” about a cheerful couple who visit the craters made by nuclear warheads during World War III.
He’s less well-known than he should be, in part because he’s hard to label. His novels tend to be about quite disparate subjects: “Paper Doll” is about a bomber crew during World War II; “Project X” is about teenagers who plan a school shooting; “Nosferatu” is about the life of the German film director F.W. Murnau; and “The Book of Aron” is about a Jewish boy’s experience in Warsaw during the Holocaust. These are good but somehow, for better and for worse, anonymously good.
Shepard writes perceptively, in “Phase Six,” about a lot of things. He’s passionate in his defense of the environment, though it’s hard to find a decent novelist who isn’t. He pays attention to the ways certain cable news channels make every situation worse. He makes scientific realities tactile: “Adults took in about 10,000 liters of air per day and couldn’t avoid inhaling each other’s discharges.”
After its creepy and bravura opening, “Phase Six” — the title refers to the World Health Organization’s highest pandemic level — stalls. It’s as if, having achieved escape velocity, Shepard turned off his engines. What begins as a brainy potboiler, the kind of book you’d have felt lucky to find in one of those spinning drugstore paperback racks, becomes ponderous.
One of the boys in Greenland who first inhaled the virus is a rare case: He survives it. He’s not the talkative sort, and it becomes crucial to get him to tell his story. “Phase Six” begins to flounder in dialogue about “trust” and “healing.” An overworked nurse becomes another primary character.
The second half is also about Danice and Jeannine’s quest to find and identify the virus, which has become known in the media as Respiratory Arrest Syndrome, or RAS. This is interesting, so far as it goes. But their long talks about the nature of humanity and microbes grow flavorless after a while. The world outside is burning and we’re almost entirely stuck inside.
There’s some slack writing, too, which is unusual for Shepard. “Checking your Twitter feed took more courage than base jumping,” he writes. Jeannine tells Danice, “I’ve been eating so many Sun Chips I probably should just apply them directly to my butt.”
“Phase Six” aspires to real density, but it can’t quite get there: The characters remain essentially static. The book falls into a no-person’s land between pop thriller and literary novel. It doesn’t satisfy on either level.
If I’d have finished it while sitting cross-legged on a bookstore floor, though, I’d have paid for it. If only because I dripped some sweat onto the opening sections.