Phase Six by Jim Shepard

Review by David Starkey

Right about now, probably the last thing most readers are looking for is another book about pandemics, and Jim Shepard’s new novel is a pandemic book through and through. Yet Shepard—author of The Book of Aron, one of the most powerful novels of the twenty-first century—is one of America’s finest writers, so Phase Six (the designation for a global pandemic) is certainly worth reading.

The opening section of Phase Six is Shephard at his best. In a small town in Greenland in the near future, two boys, Aleq and Malik, are poking through a mining camp when Aleq encounters “a cluster of molecules that had previously thrived in the respiratory tract of an early variant of the Bering goose and that had been trapped with some throat tissue in the crystalline framework during the Holocene glaciation.” Due to a “drill bit’s relentless pounding on the rock,” these deadly molecules “have been reintroduced to the air and the warming sun” and are inhaled by Aleq, who becomes the carrier of a plague that will soon sweep across the world. However, before we see the outbreak rocketing around the globe—Contagion-style—Shephard renders the virus’s lethal spread through the village in vivid and heartbreaking scenes.

Soon, a “lab wonk” and an epidemiologist from the CDC—apparently cleansed of its Trump-era tarnishing—are sent to Greenland to investigate. While the deadly microbes are terrestrial rather than extraterrestrial, the novel has built up some serious narrative propulsion by this point, with Phase Six echoing sci-fi thrillers like Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. Ultimately, though, the novel is about the indefatigable pursuit of knowledge by Danice Torrone and Jeannine Dziri. Their personal lives and individual quirks initially seem like hindrances to their detective work, but gradually we realize it is their all-too-human qualities that provide them with their hard-earned insights.

In a publisher interview, Shepard notes that the “experience of watching a matrix of catastrophe unfold right after you’ve worked it out as comprehensively as you could…has a surreal edge to it, like an echo of déjà vu.” In fact, one of the novel’s few weaknesses is an occasional hint that the main part of it was written before the Covid-19 pandemic. Granted, Shephard makes mention of the current pandemic throughout the novel, but the references are generally brief, and they sometimes feel perfunctory rather than essential to the story. When signs of the plague appear in a Rochester hospital, for instance, both doctors and patients seem strangely ill-prepared, as though they haven’t recently lived through 18 months of our own coronavirus.

For a book about a pandemic, Phase Six is relatively short. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, when one thinks about how long it takes for Albert Camus to wind down The Plague, but the ending of Shephard’s novel feels abrupt. Granted, progress has been made towards solving the riddle of the virus, but several significant narrative strands are left hanging. (One example: Valerie Landry, the ICU doctor in that Rochester hospital, goes MIA at the novel’s end.)

These are minor quibbles, though. I devoured Phase Six as fast as I could turn the pages. Like the pandemic it describes, it sweeps you up and won’t let you go.