Clare Pollard’s 2022 novel “Delphi” is a rarity in the literary landscape of the past two years: A pandemic novel that didn’t make me want to stab the narrator’s prophetic yarrow stalks through my eyeball.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the literary world has been inundated with narratives slapped together by authors clamoring to establish themselves as the immortal voice of a global cultural shift. By now, my body has started to reject every new COVID-centric poetry collection, op-ed, short story anthology and (God forbid) full-length novel that hits my inbox. The mere sight of an embedded link to a New Yorker think piece on my Twitter timeline elicits a shudder.
It’s textbook topical burnout, the same phenomenon that I felt at the end of high school, when I realized that I couldn’t stomach one more thousand-page fantasy epic.
Unlike the month that I finally kicked my Brandon Sanderson habit, however, I cannot stop myself from engaging with the subgenre of the barely fictionalized COVID-19 memoir. My attraction to these narratives, no matter how moralizing or derivative I find them, has become almost compulsive.
However, just as I was prepared to abandon my search for a pandemic story that would inspire feelings other than disdain, I finally found it with “Delphi,” an introspective narrative about a London-based Greek classicist forced to face her strained relationships with her husband and son and her disillusionment with the digital age during the first year of the pandemic.
For me, this kind of narrative often reads as overplayed—a brilliant woman chafes against the mundanity of her comfortable life and the erosion of her personal identity in subjugation to her role as a wife and mother, and she is ashamed of how much she resents her husband and child for failing to see her as a person with her own rich inner life.
It’s a character arc that drives countless narratives, many of them ingenious: Julia May Jonas’s “Vladimir,” Elena Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment” and even HBO’s “The Sopranos,” if you squint. The archetype of the affluent, dissatisfied family woman is one that has the power to be both immensely compelling and deeply boring.
In Pollard’s hands, however, the classic arc is rejuvenated by her interwoven meditations on the hollowness of our increasingly digitized lives. The narrator’s description of the empty, almost-connection to other people that she feels after hours of social media scrolling and one-on-one video calls mirror the degree of separation that she feels between herself and her family, as well as the facsimile of intimacy that they pantomime in the course of their shared domestic life.
Equally compelling is the narrator’s obsession with Greek divination methods, which escalates with her dissatisfaction as she seeks to assuage her anxieties about the fate of her immunocompromised son, seeks counsel about whether to leave her husband and asks the universe how she can find fulfillment.
As her fascination deepens, the narrator orders occult supplies from online shops, uses an app on her phone to read hexagrams and pays by the hour for tarot readings conducted over a video call.
Combined with Pollard’s wandering prose, this combination of modernity and antiquity creates a disorientingly timeless ambience that perfectly encapsulates the anxious, dissociative haze of quarantine when time felt distorted beyond relevance and the impossible seemed closer than ever.
It’s Pollard’s recreation of not only the indescribable, atemporal quality of quarantine, but also her articulation of more shameful sentiments about the pandemic that make the narrator’s arc resonate with the reader despite the triviality of her problems.
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“Delphi[’s]” narrator is often unlikeable, and she knows it. She mentally pokes fun at her students’ internal weakness and hypersensitivity and spends a large portion of the book contemplating an affair. At one point, she admits to feeling intimidated by groups of women, whom she perceives as “buzzing with gossip.”
She is a character with whom readers would not usually identify, yet her bluntness leaves no other option. Pollard uses her narrator as a mouthpiece to express feelings that felt so taboo during quarantine, resulting in an intimate, relatable narrative voice that often feels like a gossip session with a close friend.
“In a way I am also thrilled because something is happening,” the narrator says of the day that the first cases of coronavirus hit Europe. “Everyone is thrilled, actually! We are so bored of our unreal lives it is a change, at least; it is history happening.”
This jarringly confessional tone does not soften as the narrative progresses. Pollard continues to echo the most unforgivable thoughts of her readers back to them, returning again and again to the fetishistic fascination that so many of us felt at witnessing a global breakdown.
When the prime minister is hospitalized, the narrator addresses the universality of these feelings, describing the nation as “some weird mixture of giddy and chastened and afraid of ourselves.” Somehow, it feels like an absolution of guilt, to have someone else put words to a feeling that felt so shameful, even in its unarticulated form, and it is within this catharsis, rather than her beautiful language or complex characters, that the strength of Pollard’s storytelling truly resides.
This is not to say that “Delphi” is a perfect novel. It suffers from some of the same trappings as so many other pandemic novels, particularly its tendency toward cheeky 2020 cultural references, including the narrator’s opinions on Tiger King, sourdough bread, the TV adaptation of “Normal People” and a slew of unfunny jokes about the awkwardness of Zoom meetings.
Though not inaccurate, they wear thin by the novel’s halfway point, and their specificity corrupts the feeling of atemporality that Pollard strives for. Perhaps the issue is simply that these cultural touchstones are still too recent—It’s hard to get lost in the muddled timeline of the narrative as Pollard intends when I can still remember the exact month that I binged “Tiger King.” It’s possible that in ten years, once the memory of quarantine has clouded, these references will read as less disruptive and even add to the surreal fusion of modern culture and ancient superstition that lies at the heart of “Delphi.”
My most substantial complaint, however, is with the turn that the narrative takes toward the end of the novel, which cheapens the narrative by mutating “Delphi” from a claustrophobic stream of consciousness centered on the narrator’s inner life to an externally-driven family drama.
The intention, presumably, is to punctuate the fact that it is the actual events of our life, not their philosophical implications that consume the narrator, that give it meaning and direction. However, it played to me as a shallow, moralizing sermon about the dangers of screen time and modern egocentrism.
Regardless of my feelings about the ending, “Delphi” moved me to reflect on the quasi-mystical, transformative quality that the pandemic had, not just at a global level, but also on a personal scale.
Was it my perfect pandemic novel? No, and reading it made me realize that I’ll probably never find one. As Pollard clearly knows, life during the pandemic was a time heavily shaped by each person’s inner world and curated digital life that no one writer could perfectly articulate another person’s recollection of that year. Even in memory, quarantine will forever be profoundly isolating.
And right now, that’s alright with me. I’m kind of itching to go back to Brandon Sanderson.
Contact features editor Kelsey McCabe at email@example.com.
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