An accidental pandemic novel: ‘It is an awful serendipity’
In Dublin writer Sue Rainsford’s plague novel survivalist cults emerge
Author Sue Rainsford, whose second novel is Redder Days
How would you feel if you had predicted the pandemic? “It is an awful serendipity,” says Sue Rainsford, whose latest book is set in the world of a strange plague and a survival cult who had sought to escape it. “I’m not too happy about it,” she continues. Still, she’s smiling and wearing a bright red sweater. The red is important. In Redder Days, her second novel, the text abounds with crimson colours. The mysterious affliction that terrifies the group appears to cause red swelling, blood and scarlet staining.
Rainsford says the sweater is a coincidence, like the content of the book, but I’m not so sure. Even seemingly chance connections have their origins somewhere. “I came up with the concept in late 2013,” she says. The final manuscript was sent on March 14th last year, the day the schools closed, the day after then taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced “we will prevail again”.
In her quest to understand and reflect the world, Rainsford is a fan of critical theory
Rainsford is engaging, she speaks eloquently and in the practised way of those familiar with delivering classes and lectures. That’s unsurprising, because alongside her fiction writing, she is also an arts writer which involves giving talks on diverse and intriguing subjects. I’ve been concerned, because her website says that “her practice is concerned with hybrid, lyric and embodied texts, explicit fusions of critical and corporeal inquiry.” Having read that in advance, I’m not sure I’ll enjoy the book.
But I do. The writing is beautiful, even though the part of me that likes to be lazy prefers to be clearer on what has happened, what might be going to happen. The part of me that likes to work for my rewards, however, is rewarded. In the book, Anna and Adam are the remnants of a commune, living in a strange abandoned town, alongside the fading presence of cult leader, Koan.
Koan is an unusual name, so I look it up: it means a riddle without a solution. It’s apt. He’s an enigmatic character, not totally satisfyingly evil in the traditional “baddie” sense of the word, but still pretty damn awful. “I didn’t always enjoy writing him, when I was spending time inside his head,” says Rainsford. “But it was important to spend time inside the person who’s designing the rules, who’s fabricating the systems of control.”
As we talk, our Zoom link is doing its best to stay stable despite a wild storm outside messing with my electricity. It’s easy to forget the elements when you’re cocooned by culture. In Redder Days, the main action happens in a town where strange fires erupt periodically from the ground. “Yes, it’s real,” Rainsford says, delightedly. “It’s called Centralia in Pennsylvania. It’s a crazy situation where a coal mine caught fire.”
With the kind of mind that finds sources and eclectic references and uses them to shape or fire her imagination, Rainsford’s conversation is diverse and seldom uninteresting. She thinks about things with an intelligent curiosity that is open to a sense of wonder and humour, which is more unusual than one might have hoped in the world.
In her quest to understand and reflect the world, Rainsford is a fan of critical theory – essentially a strand of thinking and writing that questions pretty much everything in society, but which is frequently maligned and mocked for being tough-going and obscure. “It’s hugely useful. I have found more sustaining nuggets, more emotive solace. When I’m reading something like that, I feel sated. I feel like I can rest because I’m in contact with what I’m looking for.”
There’s an idea in academia that knowledge hard-won is more valuable, because you’ve thought harder to get to the answers. I have tended to resist it because I have frequently found when, after a struggle, you get there, there’s not always anything major to see. But the conversation is becoming more and more important, for, as we are increasingly discovering, lazy and easy thinking is a breeding ground for dangerous misinformation.
We talk about Ana Mendieta, whose Silueta series saw the artist burn or carve her outline into the landscape; and about Tom Philips, who made artworks from painting over the pages of books. We explore how terror and disaster get normalised and Rainsford wonders when “that shifts into a pathology, what harmful practices emerge?” Then, she moves on to consider how some bodies get “othered”, pushed outside society and its own, not always entirely healthy, norms. We talk about periods, hormonal cycles, how men have them too, but how they don’t have the same space for reflection as women.
Rainsford may not have precisely predicted the pandemic, but she certainly sheds light on the conditions of its existence in our world
In the book, twins Anna and Adam have a highly unhealthy relationship. “I was interested in twinness,” she says. “What happens in utero that can be built into the psyche later on. I was meant to be a twin,” she continues. “But my mother miscarried. I had all these strange dreams when I was in my early 20s about a boy who had my face.” Her dreams changed after her mother explained about her twin. “They stopped being traumatic in nature. I feel like he continues to visit me, but I’m aware of his existence so the urgency has gone from his dispatches.”
This leads to a conversation about soul: “I don’t know if I would think of it in terms of a soul. I do think of all of us having some kind of residue. The degree to which that residue is sentient or expressive, I fluctuate around that.” And from there we slide into talk about school, which she hated. After spending time in the United States (she retains an American twang) with her father, who worked in film before changing careers, Rainsford went to Mount Anvil, a fee-paying all-girls school in south Dublin. “I resisted it with every fibre of my being,” she says decisively, preferring to stay at home when she could, read books and watch Polanski movies.
Particularly loathsome to her were the body-shaming aspects of PE, the materialism of the environment and the cruelty of some teachers. These themes mirror and perpetuate those same aspects in wider society and yet communes and cults founded on utopianism tend to fail. And so we’re back to that central idea of control, which hinges her book and also underpins our own pandemic world.
While we have the control of the lockdowns, Covid-19 doesn’t seem to have bred survivalist cults to the degree predicted in Redder Days. Maybe, I muse, it’s because, awful as it is, Covid isn’t quite bad enough. “We’ve been broken into these lockdown windows,” agrees Rainsford. “We have these clauses of time, where we’ll say ‘I’ll just wait till Monday, we’ll know more on Monday, and I won’t make any decisions till Monday’. And it keeps ticking over in that way.”
Rainsford may not have precisely predicted the pandemic, but she certainly sheds light on the conditions of its existence in our world.
Redder Days is published by Doubleday