In July 1518, what began with a woman dancing fervently in a Strasbourg street led to somewhere between fifty and four hundred people taking to dancing compulsively for days. In January 1962, three schoolgirls in Tanganyika, in what is now Tanzania, experienced an uncontrollable laughing fit that spread throughout the school and affected more than half of the students. In 2013, a tiny village in Kazakhstan was beset by an inexplicable pandemic as the residents slipped into a deep state of comatose sleep.
Reading about instances of mass psychogenic illness while living through a global pandemic might be a result of morbid curiosity, but fiction that explores these themes is nothing new. Pandemic literature is a well-worn subgenre that often goes hand-in-hand with situations where characters navigate the aftermath of the end of days.
Despite the grim topic of Ilze Hugo’s debut literary apocalyptic novel—one that hits way too close to home these days—I found myself strangely comforted, if not awed, by the snarky mystery of The Down Days. Chronicling, through a series of vignettes, a week-long sliver of a pandemic in a South African city, it intersperses this narrative with articles from a newspaper which also features in the story. The novel is a fast-paced exploration of a different kind of malady than what we’re dealing with right now: the citizens of Sick City are struck by what is called the Laughter, which doesn’t sound as comical considering it turns its giggling victims’ insides into “a gloopy, watery soup that poured out of every orifice” (p. 169).
Seven years of quarantine has turned the city into its own bizarre self-sustaining ecosystem, complete with speakeasy comedy clubs, underground data dealers, therapy bars where patrons take the edge off by paying to beat up boxers dressed in costumes, and an illegal hair-trade with ties to a spiritual new-age cult. Hugo’s affinity for shorter works—her other publications include two short story collections, The Ghost Eater and Other Shorts and My Holiday Shorts—infuses the staccato chapters with vibrant characterization that enriches the larger landscape of the book. There is an almost cinematic quality to the way Hugo uses her setting. One section opens as Sans, a ponytail peddler and one of the many prevalent voices in the novel, is walking down the street with Faith, a collector of the dead and a self-proclaimed “truthologist” who is hired to find the missing ghost of a boy. It is told from the point-of-view of the pigeon who shits on Sans’s head.
Like this chance encounter with the pigeon, the characters of The Down Days seem to go through their lives with one eye closed: they live in a city where events not even an hour later are guaranteed, and the novel relishes exploring what this might do to their psyche. Further, it goes into their lives before the Laughter to paint a full picture of how they came to be their present selves: Piper is too far gone to mourn the person she used to be; Faith is still, both metaphorically and then physically, haunted by a loss so big that, even after a good deal of time, it mangles her heart and drives her decisions. For others like Sans, who finds something akin to destiny in the old tomes of the occult, or Mickey, the underground data dealer that every resident of Sick City seem to be bound to cross paths with, the Laughter means a redefinition of identity in a different sense.
The paranormal is interwoven deep into the tapestry of all the characters’ personal histories, to the point where the reader might not be able to tell the difference between the many colorful details of the spiritual realm that bleed into reality and Sick City’s post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s a city where laughter is forbidden, it’s a city riddled with observations that, when read with our current mid-pandemic state of mind, ring prescient. Wearing masks and gloves everywhere is mandatory, “A few suckers even started drinking diluted bleach, thinking it would cure them from the inside out” (p. 83). The newspaper that Faith likes to read, The Daily Truth, is a conduit for spreading conspiracy theories regarding the disease’s origin, as well as theories doubting the disease’s very existence:
“Say,” said Sans. “Aren’t you afraid I’m going to infect you?…It doesn’t faze you one bit?”
“Don’t believe in it.”
“Believe in what?”
“The Laughter, of course. The whole thing is just a big old population control experiment by Western imperialists who are lining the pockets of our government to turn a blind eye.”
“That’s crazy. Don’t you see what’s happening all around you? What about the deaths? The bodies? How do you explain those away?” (p. 272)
When faced with such a sharp, pin-point observation, I wonder how anyone can deny a global pandemic as it is happening at this moment. I don’t get why people would politicize a health crisis by refusing to take precautions when it’s putting so many people in danger. This is how The Down Days nails down the subtleties of living through such a time, while also providing some hope by showing the unlikely friendships formed between the characters, who become a sort of found family that cares for each other even through the worst times.
Hugo dives just as easily into a point-of-view character’s inner world as she comes back up to the surface to make active use of her setting. The language is filled with bits of Afrikaans and colloquial nuance. This gives the sense that she is being very playful with it all, almost as if it’s meant to be read aloud, which is in line with the snappy progression of the plot. Much of the intricacies that tie the characters together, even when two people who are talking don’t seem particularly to like each other, is shown through the masterful dialogue that gets convoluted only if Hugo wants it to. One of the main players, Fred Mostert, is a sin-eater and a top-notch psychic by family trade, and has a way of talking that is part Bill Murray in Ghostbusters and part other various pop culture references; this admittedly does get old a bit, but here Hugo showcases another facet of the character.
Speaking of Fred: cheesy as he is, he also embodies the best quality that comes out of this ensemble—being a beacon of hope and sharing a sense of community when there is such a scarcity of both. He summons up hope for Faith, and it doesn’t matter that she in her current state flat-out refuses. It doesn’t matter, either, that a not insignificant part of him is maybe telling him this to feel better about himself: he, to the best of his ability, maintains an air of (a new kind of) normalcy so that others around him can follow his lead and move on.
“He was one of the good guys. Hope. Fred Mostert gave people hope. That’s what Faith needed right now, and he was going to give it to her; come hell or high water, he wasn’t going to give up.” (p. 242)
Having read R. F. Kuang’s phenomenal The Dragon Republic (2019) recently, the inclusion of the amakhosi, gangs—who drink certain concoctions in order to become possessed by gods who grant them immense power, then use this power for crime and otherwise wreaking havoc—wasn’t lost on me. These young people, a subculture of Xhosa teens, are then shipped off to war zones across the world by the government as super soldiers. They return, haggard and wrecked with PTSD, with a heavier burden than they can bear. For most of the novel they are little more than an urban legend, a footnote that the Daily Truth milks for effect, but this effect is more than enough to get an inkling of the tragic story they inhabit. The novel doesn’t comment on whether this spinning of truth and lie together by the newspaper—and by people like Fred—is good or bad; rather there is a question of who is using smoke and mirrors against whom, and why. There are bigger forces at play for the residents of Sick City—ones that ideally should strive for the health and safety of the public, but don’t really seem to.
In the end, the patchwork of characters that make up this city—as ridden with the plague as it is—are content with what they find. They even seem to find closure with the knowledge that they have changed the city’s—and possibly the rest of the world’s—landscape forever. This closure comes from the comforting sense of having achieved the truths that they each feel. Piper’s final scene is especially interesting, in that her truth has an on-the-nose finality that is perhaps an allusion to the ephemeral nature of humanity.
Whenever I read a debut author, especially if I’m impressed with their novel, I’m always curious to see how their career will take shape and how their voice will change over the years. I felt that curiosity with Ilze Hugo, who has struck the balance between literary and genre fiction, the historical and the speculative, and paired this with such masterful language that I’m eager to see what else she’ll have in store.