Jan. 20 2010 12:00 AM

Pandemic ravages U.S. in eerie novel



Author Laura Kasischke seems like she would be a charming dinner companion — until she starts talking about one of her interests: plagues.

Yes, the old-fashioned kind that kill millions of people. There’s the Black Plague and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which claimed more lives than the battles of World War I.

The author of seven novels and seven books of poetry has put her expertise on the subject to work in her most recent book, “In a Perfect World.” Kasischke will visit Schuler Books in the Eastwood Towne Center, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21.

In “World,” you quickly learn about the pandemic in the first chapter. Otherwise, you might mistakenly believe Kasischke’s book is a romance novel.

Interviewed at her home in Chelsea — she is on leave from her teaching position at the University of Michigan and working on a Guggenheim Fellowship — Kasischke said all her novels involve unexpected death. This one is certainly no different. The opening line is “If you are reading this you are going to die.”

Kasischke could’ve started her novel with her protagonist’s whirlwind romance with a handsome airline pilot, but this way she pulls you into an engaging riff on one family’s death dance with a pandemic.

It’s an environment in which characters only know what they hear or see since all communication is cut off. The author also made a decision not to clutter the novel with technical terms; this is not a Michael Crichton thriller.

“I am not an epidemiologist,” Kasischke said. “I focused on relationships and the protagonist only knows as little as she was told.”

In short order, Jiselle, a 32-year-old airline stewardess and a six-time bridesmaid, is swept off her feet and swept in to a ready-made family with three children. She becomes the resident nanny, although her stepchildren see her as the evil stepmother. The inter-family squabbles are soon supplanted by a quarantine of the pilot-father and an escalation of the pandemic called the Phoenix flu.

Kasischke uses her vast knowledge of the history of plagues and their impact on societies and individuals to remind us that we do not do well when confronted with crisis. Jiselle’s husband’s protracted quarantine in another country is just one example of how fear clouds thinking and people not only begin seeing death not only in the silver birds carrying Americans but also in the birds on the ground. And then the rodents come. Are they being whipped into a frenzy due to cell towers?

Talking to Kasischke, you know she had fun writing this novel, not only poking society with a sharpened stick, but also individuals who see someone with a cough and move away quickly. Death does that to you.

While writing the book, Kasischke said a personal moment helped clarify her writing.

One of her children was set to go on an exchange program to Japan that was canceled due to the fear of the bird flu.

“It makes sense, if you think what would happen,” Kasischke said. “Nations would close their boundaries.”

Kasischke emphasizes she wrote the book prior to the current swine flu scare. To the author, calling a flu a specific name was common throughout history; it was always someone else’s plague. In her book, she points out the French plague, the German plague, and on and on.

One sobering comment in the book is how “foreigners” are blaming Americans for everything that goes wrong. “I wanted to pursue who would be blamed and what superstitions (about the pandemic) would come out,” Kasischke said.

Although you hate to think that a society would react the way it does in the book, instinctively you know there is little high road. Of course, in the book as in real life the marginal characters blame everyone else for the flu. After an outbreak of the Phoenix flu in a daycare center, outraged citizens demand a ban on imported toys.

Kasischke’s book mixes the grim scenario with odd family relationships and humorous situations. Take the $87 Thanksgiving turkey (turkey prices have skyrocketed due to mass exterminations since turkeys are thought to be carriers). Is this strangely reminiscent of recent pig exterminations?

“My descriptions are not prophetic, just coincidence,” the author said. But you can’t put out of your mind that maybe history repeats itself. Her descriptions of how fast a city can change in physical appearance during a plague and the complete economic collapse are chilling in their leanness.

Kasischke sees every novel she writes as a different challenge. In “World,” “the challenge was to write the novel so it took place in one year. It became very chronological for me.”

Imagine what might happen if a country was faced with even a rumor of an epidemic.

Remember how quickly the supermarket shelves were recently depleted of bottled water? To get in the mood for this book go to your pantry and take a casual inventory: How long could you last?

Kasischke’s book answers that question in an apocalyptic tale from a mother’s point of view.

Laura Kasischke

7 p.m. Thursday Jan. 21 Schuler Books Eastwood Towne Centerl 2820 Towne Center Blvd. Free (517) 316-9209 www.schulerbooks.com