I unwittingly chose to read (by which I mean listen to on audio) Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever at just the right time — right after I finished Eula Biss’s excellent book On Immunity. On Immunity takes up controversies over vaccines and explores their cultural meanings and is really, truly great. The Fever is, in part, a fictional exploration of our cultural anxieties about vaccines (among other threats), and it’s also great, although it’s an entirely different book — a thrilling, plot-driven novel about hysteria in a small-town high school. One girl has a seizure and goes into a coma and shortly afterward girl after girl gets struck down with terrifying and inexplicable symptoms. As the bodies of the young girls go out of control, the minds of the adults go bonkers as well; they desperately search for a culprit and one likely source is the HPV vaccine recently administered to the students. This, of course, allows them to freak out not only about vaccines, but about adolescent female sexuality, which, of course, parents are perfectly primed to freak out about.
But this is only one possibility — there is also the polluted lake that everyone was supposed to stop swimming in but that some people swam in anyway. And there are many other dangers and pollutants lurking everywhere, in building materials, in processed food, in the air and the ground and everywhere. No one feels safe and no one knows what to do about it. Abbott is really great at capturing what it’s like to be a teenager today (or at least this strikes me, as one who is very much not a teenager, as true) and makes me feel relieved I’m all grown up. She’s particularly good at describing what it’s like to live with modern technology, and interestingly, the characters seem to find it a burden. Their phones never let them forget about gossip and scandals and what everyone else is doing and tie them to people they would prefer to escape. They interrupt the moment with the promise of new information but more often bring only anxiety. As the characters try to sort out the dangers, if any, of something like the HPV vaccine, information on the internet only confuses the issue further.
Fortunately, Abbott’s protagonists are sympathetic and do their best to stay calm and sane in the midst of the uncertainty around them, and this keeps the tone of the book from becoming too dark. The novel is both entertaining, and a good portrayal of some of our current cultural obsessions. This novel, along with On Immunity, make excellent reading for anyone wanting to understand more about the things — vaccinations included — that scare us.