David Rees: The Last Book I Loved, The Plague

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“Followed by scowls and protestations, (the doctor) left the committee-room. Some minutes later, as he was driving down a black street redolent of fried fish and urine, a woman screaming in agony, her groin dripping blood, stretched her arms toward him.”

—Albert Camus, The Plague, p. 49

I’m gonna risk tearing a hole in the literary space-time continuum by picking The Plague as the last book I loved even though I haven’t finished reading it.

Now before you come screaming at me with your crotch dripping blood, yelling, “David how dare you pick a book you haven’t finished as the ‘last book you loved,’ do you even understand how past-tense works you idiot, ARRGGHH, I’m so mad at you, look at all this blood dripping out of my crotch,” let me say that I have in fact read The Plague before. Back in the summer of 1991, when I was home from college, my parents went into “Proposition-Joe mode” and set up a meet with one of their church’s priests because I had just suffered through an existential crisis in freshman philosophy after reading Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and realizing for the first (but not the last) time that God didn’t exist and that my 10+ years of diligent / obsessive-compulsive prayer (every morning, every meal, every time I got in/out of a car, etc.) were for naught.

This particular priest was an old family friend and a professor of medieval history at a prestigious public university, so it wasn’t like he was gonna hold my head under water while using snakes as maracas and babbling about “Hey gabba gabba methuslah jawa armagoobah hobabbah,” (besides that’s not really how Episcopalians do glossolalia; it’s more like, “Please remind the rotating chair of the Altar Guild that we’ll need fresh dianthus when we hold the Coordinating Committee meeting re: the vestry’s flowchart for the ecclesiology seminar” [LOL, what am I, Garrison Keillor now?]). Anyway, the priest and I had a nice talk about the absurdity of life and the problem of making meaning and then he said, “Have you ever read The Plague, by Camus? It’s a good book. You can read it in an evening. It might be helpful.”

I thought that by recommending a second Camus book to bring me out of the funk the first Camus book had put me in, maybe the priest was playing Camus against Camus, in the hopes that both Camuses would collapse into a Camusiastic Singularity whose intense gravitational field would yank off the God-negating tablecloth I was suffocating under without disturbing the fine tableware of my good Episcopalian upbringing. I left the priest’s house thinking I would buy The Plague immediately, because he said you could read it in an evening, which made me think it was 50 pages, tops.

Guess what, gang? The Plague is 280+ pages. That’s actually 650+ pages in “David Rees pages,” because I’m very a slow reader. Once I found a copy, though (can’t remember if my parents had one, or I found one at the PTA Thrift Shop, but my copy is so tattered and bruised it looks like it went through a plague itself and maybe needs a couple boils lanced) and started reading, I fell in love with it. Basically, the book is about this town that suffers a plague that’s killing people left and right and all kinds of boils and pustules need draining with buboes popping off every which way. Not to mention about 10,000 dead rats, which is a great, creepy way to start a book — any book. Piles of little rat corpses littering the streets, with the townspeople like “Have you noticed, Mr. Jonesbly, that we’re enjoying a superabundance of fetid rat corpses?” or whatever. The point is, it starts building this sense of dread that I have come to love in zombie movies and now seek out in literature (which is why I read The Road more than once, in spite of its preposterous prose style and sketchy ideological underpinnings). But even with all the fiendish, horror-movie goings-on in it, the stuff I remember best about reading The Plague in 1991 and the stuff I want to experience again is the stuff about this one bad-ass doctor who totally mans up and goes into full-on hero mode and works his ass off trying to help everybody and save them from this goddamn plague they can’t shake. I can see now that the priest thought I would appreciate this fictional model of ethical-behavior-as-a-gigantic-“Fuck you”-to-absurdity, and now I see that The Plague is no kind of counterargument to The Myth of Sisyphus.

And that’s why I’m reading it again! And I love it!

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More “The Last Book I Loved” articles here.