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Book Review: 14 Days

Harper

Here’s something different – a collaborative novel in the form of 14 chapters called “days” that extends from March 31, 2020, to April 13, 2020 -- the height of the COVID pandemic. Each “day” is written by a small group of authors, 36 in all, reflecting various ages and diverse political, social, and ethnic backgrounds. All obviously, doing more than one day. Called Fourteen Days and edited by award-winning author Margaret Atwood and writer Douglas Preston, the novel covers two weeks of the COVID lockdown in Manhattan, as the tenants of a rundown apartment building on the Lower East Side called Fernsby Arms follow the lead of the building superintendent and drag chairs up to the roof at sundown, eager for fresh air. They begin to fall into a rhythm, tell stories, and urge others to do so.

The tenants’ first move every night, however, is to look down on the street and, six feet apart, join in a pots-and-pans celebration of frontline workers helping in the fight against COVID. Then to pass time they start telling stories, as the super delivers statistics about growing death rates. Are the stories true? Who knows? Many tellers suspect that the tales they hear are confessions. The superintendent gives them nicknames – first, for their apartments – 3A, 4 D-- but then for some peculiarity --The Lady with Rings, Eurovision, Hello Kitty, Amnesia, La Cocinera, and so on. The collection is a kind of variant of Scheherazade, which I discovered is Arabic for “city dweller.”

The book opens with a chapter narrated by the superintendent who is taking notes on the tellers and their tales, all the while referencing concern about a relative in a nursing home. Reluctant to make a contribution, the super finally yields toward the end with a tale that is revelatory, shocking.

The concept of this book is ingenious, a fund-raising offering from the Authors Guild, America’s oldest and largest professional advocacy organization for writers, whose president Scott Turow is among the contributors. Not to mention some other well-known names --Dave Eggers, John Grisham, Maria Hinojosa, Erica Jong, Ishmael Reed, James Shapiro, Meg Wolitzer.

The fun of reading the collection is to wonder who wrote what. A turn to the end pages, listing the contributors alphabetically, pair the authors with their “days”. Atwood herself is represented, as is Preston. Will readers recognize styles or favored subject matter? Maybe, but as the self-appointed host Eurovision intones, “Let’s not overanalyze one another’s stories. This isn’t a lit class.” Just deliver. And they do.

In a prefatory ficitional note, readers learn that the collection that follows is “transcribed from an unclaimed manuscript found in storage at the property clerk Division office of the New York City Police Department on April 14, 2020, retrieved and published on February 6, 2024.

As for the timeliness of the book? As new COVID strains move into our population, Fourteen Days proves more than diverting. As the Authors Guild Foundation writes in an introduction, “evolutionary biologists believe the storytelling thirst is hard-wired into our genes: stories are what make us human.”

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.