Fourteen Days: A Collaborative Novel, Edited by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston


Reviewed by Walter Cummins

Although the Covid-19 outbreak of 2020 didn’t turn out to be nearly as bad as the 14th century European Black Death, in the midst of the lockdown people had no idea of what we would ultimately be facing, especially those unable to flee New York, which for a time was the epicenter of the pandemic, with soaring rates of hospitalizations and an overflow of bodies stacked in refrigerated trucks. People feared human contact and many were reluctant even to leave their apartments. That ominous uncertainty serves as the setting of Fourteen Days, in which the residentsof a rundown Lower East Side apartment building called the Fernsby Arms gather six-feet apart on the tar paper rooftop to join neighboring buildings in a 7 p.m. outburst of thanks for first responders and then share stories, night after night.

The fictional collector of these stories—surreptitiously recorded on her secreted smartphone—is the building’s superintendent, a young woman following in her father’s occupational footsteps. Fearful of the high death rates in nursing homes, she obsessively calls the man’s facility for news of his demented condition but never gets an answer: “I’ve been calling my dad nonstop, with no results. I’m exhausted and sick with anger.” The actual editorial organizer of the stories and provider of bridge material that links the movement through the fourteen days is the book’s co-editor, Douglas Preston.

The device of desperate people sharing stories in the midst of mass death has narrative appeal. It certainly worked for Boccaccio when he wrote The Decameron between 1349 and 1353, producing one of the world’s classics, a method certainly worth emulating by Atwood and Preston, though their collection doesn’t match Boccaccio’s achievement.

One fundamental reason may be the fact that although Boccaccio created characters who were the tellers of his works’ one hundred stories, he was actually the sole author of The Decameron, in full command, as Chaucer was for The Canterbury Tales. In contrast, Fourteen Days is the product of thirty-six authors with publication records in genres that range from literary fiction to romance, poetry, history, journalism, young adult, and others. They were not given any advance instructions about what and how to write, just to contribute a piece. As a result, they submitted material of varying quality, some experimenting in genres that were not their specialties, most clearly having a good time in participating. Someone, no doubt Preston, was faced with the challenge of putting it all together.

The fictional rooftop tellers are designated with names imagined by the building’s previous super, derived from a specific oddity of their interests or behavior, like Eurovision, Vinegar, Florida, Lady with the Rings, The Therapist, Tango, Blackbeard, and Hello Kitty. Some are more active presences in the evenings’ activities than others, but none are really characterized, just displaying manifestations of attributes. Sometimes the story they tell relates to that attribute, others not. They do interact with rivalries and moments of support, but as a group they are hardly as memorable as Chaucer’s pilgrims.

With the topics and approaches left to the choices of the thirty-six authors, the contributions had to be distributed to particular residents for the telling. Like the other apartment dwellers on the roof, the reader has no idea what is coming next. It can be a surprising treat or fall flat. The stories told are about ghosts, war, abuse, betrayal, revenge, surprise, and shock. Most are anecdotal, often focusing on an impact rather than developed fictions of complex characters and dramatic issues.

Take day four as a typical grouping. The young super lists those present and sets the scene: ““We were beginning to fall into a rhythm on the roof. People would start gathering about fifteen minutes before seven; we’d mostly be in place by seven sharp to join in the evening cheer; and then an hour later, the bells of Old St. Pat’s would nudge the evening to a close.”

After the super records the day’s statistics of infections and deaths, Eurovision begins with a story of two gay men who adopt a girl baby and are terrified by the people ringing their buzzer at midnight, not knowing the mother of one is throwing a surprise party celebration. Then a man referred to as Darrow tells how, when he was a small boy, his mother delivered a new brother on a snowy Christmas and he informed Santa he didn’t want another the next year. Next Amnesia tells about a childhood dream of seeing a woman with a scarred face standing as a white-shuttered window; she turns out to be her mother’s now dead birth mother in a house for unwed pregnancies. Lala recounts the sudden death of her father and her sense of tangible grief. Finally, Maine, a new resident and a physician, describes Sister Mary Francis and her uncanny ability to sense which patient was going to die. Some of these stories are more engaging than others, but they share versions of fear and dread with the final emphasis on death reinforcing the anxiety of the pandemic.

The contributors of Fourteen Days, under the auspices of the Authors Guild, are Charlie Jane Anders, Margaret Atwood, Jennine Capó Crucet, Joseph Cassara, Angie Cruz, Pat Cummings, Sylvia Day, Emma Donoghue, Dave Eggers, Diana Gabaldon, Tess Gerritsen, John Grisham, Maria Hinojosa, Mira Jacob, Erica Jong, CJ Lyons, Celeste Ng, Tommy Orange, Mary Pope Osborne, Douglas Preston, Alice Randall, Ishmael Reed, Roxana Robinson, Nelly Rosario, James Shapiro, Hampton Sides, R. L. Stine, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Monique Truong, Scott Turow, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rachel Vail, Weike Wang, Caroline Randall Williams, De’Shawn Charles Winslow, and Meg Wolitzer. While the stories are printed without attribution to their real-life writers, the final bio statements identify who wrote which.

While Fourteen Days concludes with what many would consider a surprise ending, the single thread running through the collection is the young super’s concern for news of her father. The resolution of that thread is central to the final revelation.

But the thread doesn’t transform what is essentially a story collection into a collaborative novel. It does provide a reminder that the people assembled on the roof are enduring a deadly pandemic with nothing to do but share stories. Sometimes all we have to sustain us are stories.