Summary: PART 1. THE THEATER
Jeevan Chaudhary, a young man training to be a paramedic in Toronto, attends a stage production of King Lear starring famous actor Arthur Leander. During the show, Arthur collapses, and Jeevan jumps on stage to perform CPR. An ambulance arrives, but the medics are unable to save Arthur. Jeevan notices Kirsten Raymonde, a young girl who was part of the production, and asks her where her parents are. Her parents aren’t there, so he leaves Kirsten with Tanya Gerard, the handler for the children in the show. Jeevan looks for his girlfriend, Laura, who has left the play and is not answering her phone. When Jeevan leaves the theater, he runs into the paparazzi who came to take pictures of Arthur. Jeevan was once a paparazzo himself. He walks home in the falling snow, at first exhilarated that he got to give Arthur CPR, confirming his calling to be a paramedic, then depressed about his crumbling relationship with Laura. Jeevan gets a text from Laura asking him to pick up milk on his way home.
Members of the King Lear production go to a bar attached to the theater, where they drink and reminisce about Arthur. Tanya waits for Kirsten’s parents to arrive and gives Kirsten a paperweight to distract her from Arthur’s death. The chapter closes by ominously claiming that no one at the bar remains alive a month from that night.
Jeevan walks through snow drifts in the park, wondering how Kirsten is doing and reflecting on his relationship with Laura. Hua, an old friend of Jeevan’s and a doctor at Toronto General Hospital, calls to tell Jeevan that a disease called the Georgia Flu has officially reached Toronto. The flu is deadly and spreading fast, and Hua warns Jeevan that this is the beginning of an epidemic. Jeevan decides to walk to his brother Frank’s house.
Just as Jeevan reaches his brother Frank’s building, Hua calls Jeevan again with the news that the flu is even worse than previously thought. Hundreds of people have fallen ill, and many have died; Hua says that he has never seen something spread so fast. Hua tells Jeevan to either leave the city or stock up on food and stay inside. Jeevan walks into a grocery store and loads seven carts full of water, food, and supplies. Jeevan calls Hua again, and Hua tells him that he and Frank and Laura should leave the city immediately, but Jeevan says that Frank is in a wheelchair, and he cannot get a wheelchair van in the middle of the night. When Hua coughs into the phone before hanging up, Jeevan suspects that he is infected by the flu. Jeevan calls Laura and tells her to go stay with her mother, but Laura is confused by Jeevan’s anxiety since she hasn’t heard about the epidemic reaching Toronto yet. Jeevan spends an hour pushing the seven carts through the snow to Frank’s apartment building, then uses the freight elevator to take them to Frank’s door.
The executive producer of the King Lear production calls Arthur’s lawyer to inform him of Arthur’s death. The lawyer contacts Clark Thompson, Arthur’s closest friend, who then calls Arthur’s ex-wives.
Miranda Carroll’s boss Leon as sent her to Malaysia to deal with their company’s container ships that are idle due to the worldwide economic collapse. She receives a call from Clark Thompson, who tells her that Arthur died of a heart attack while performing King Lear. The call comes during the last month when telephones were still working.
This chapter is a list of things that are no longer available after the collapse. The list includes trains, cities, films, gasoline, concerts, pharmaceuticals, countries, fire departments, police, garbage pickup, the Internet, and social media.
Analysis: PART 1. THE THEATER
In the opening chapters of the novel, the pandemic creates a clear before and after in the world. Mandel establishes one of the novel’s most prevalent themes: a painful nostalgia for the lost world. When Jeevan hears about the Georgia Flu, he immediately intuits that it will change the world entirely and that it will divide the world into before and after. His certainty that a monumental end is coming allows Jeevan to act quickly to survive the flu. Mandel highlights the gravity of the pandemic by interrupting the story to list all that is being lost because of it. Chapter 6 serves as a eulogy of sorts to the world of before, listing era-defining losses like the end of trains, air travel, and the Internet. This chapter also includes mourning for the loss of the mundane and ordinary, such as moths fluttering around porch lights and social media posts of babies in Halloween costumes. This mix of large-scale tragedy and everyday loss defines the novel and imbues the story with gratitude and tenderness for the entire fraught process of human civilization.
These early chapters also explore the idea of finding one’s vocation versus sleepwalking through life. Just before the pandemic intrudes, Jeevan tries to help Arthur during a heart attack and understands his calling to become a paramedic. He contrasts this realization with his experience as a paparazzo, which he found meaningless and empty. This realization is the last that Jeevan will have in the world before the pandemic, and it carries him through the novel and into his work as a doctor. The novel also opens as Arthur dies onstage, and Jeevan comforts young Kirsten with the idea that Arthur died doing what he truly loved. Throughout the novel, many characters are most free and happy when engaged in their vocations. When Kirsten is grown and a member of the Traveling Symphony, she repeats this idea, saying she feels most free when she is acting. Though the circumstances of daily life change entirely after the pandemic, having a true calling continues to provide solace and meaning.
The line between art and life is quite blurred. In many ways, the story of the novel happens in miniature on the stage when King Lear is interrupted. The grand arc of the novel is that the illness arrives and interrupts life entirely, and those who make it through are left to survive and find meaning. In the production of King Lear, death comes for the king, interrupts the play, and the people who survive are left to make sense of his absence and figure out what to do next. When Arthur begins to falter onstage, the audience is uncertain whether his behavior is part of the play or not, and this introduces a sense of unreality. This uncanniness continues as Jeevan attempts to resuscitate Arthur onstage and feels as though he's being watched by an audience of ghosts. Most of the actors are referred to only by the names of the characters they play. This keeps the play going in a strange, new way at the bar as the cast attempts to pick up the pieces after Arthur’s death. Blurring the line between art and reality and between performance and real life is one of the primary ways the characters cope with tragedy.