Flu Season

A talk with disease-nerd novelist, banjo player, and indie-rock muse Myla Goldberg

Two years ago, the Decemberists' Colin Meloy wrote a song about Myla Goldberg's pretty hands and dangly limbs, but she "must have had a brain lesion or something," because she didn't remember ever meeting him. "I'm bad," she says. "It turns out we talked at a reading. But it's not like he said, 'Hello, I'm Colin Meloy, the lead singer of the Decemberists.' "

A friend e-mailed her about the song, which describes her as "unique New York" ("I need New York/I need New York"), but she assumed it was a joke. When she finally listened to the CD, she "started blushing and smiling simultaneously."

With the publication of her first novel, Bee Season,Goldberg—who plays banjo, lives in Park Slope, and is "really intrigued by human frailty"—won the adoration of the same kind of brainy girls who swoon over Meloy. The Bee Seasonfamily is weird and lovable: The mom is addicted to shoplifting household appliances, and the daughter, who looks like "any Jew," imagines the letters of the alphabet stretching out and taking the form of tangerines, melons, and dogs.

Her forthcoming follow-up Wickett's Remedy, about the 1918 influenza epidemic in Boston, carefully appeals to a different kind of reader. "I felt a lot of internal pressure to take risks and write something new," she explains. "Writing is the reason I'm alive, basically. There's no reason to tell the same story over and over."

After reading an article in The New York Times, which named the influenza outbreak one of the five worst epidemics of all time, Goldberg, a "disease nerd," couldn't believe that she had never heard of such a plague. In Wickett's Remedy, she tells the story of 23-year-old Lydia Kilkenny Wickett, who smells like sunshine and sees the epidemic as a source of inspiration. Like her late husband, who invented a loneliness potion, Lydia is alarmingly kind, generous, and functional. She volunteers at a government flu study, where the doctors are willfully infecting people through elaborate snot transfers: The sick cough out phlegm, and the healthy swallow it. When she discovers what's happening, she's so moved by the injustice that she lets a single tear dribble down her trembling cheek.

The characters in Bee Seasondutifully create their own problems, but in this novel there's no need. All squirmy and no-good impulses are externalized in the form of a massive, nationwide plague. Those who do have something bad to say wait until after they've died. In one-inch annotations at the sides of each page, dozens of different ghosts comment and offer their own interpretations on the story, quibbling over minor details like whether or not a certain nurse has the "nicest titties" at the hospital.

Goldberg says she began the novel with the idea that it would explore the "faultiness of memory," and this chorus of the dead, which she imagines existing in "some weird space—nothing to do with Judeo-Christian tradition," circles around the idea repeatedly. Every page or two, a dead person butts in to "point out" or "admit" that the story we're reading is wrong. Even Lydia's husband's loneliness potion evolves, once he's died, into a new and horrible incarnation. The taste is so good it becomes a national carbonated beverage called QD—as popular as Coca-Cola. It has its own songs ("I'm Just a QD Cutie"), TV show, puppets, and scholarly quarterly with articles like "To Drink or Not to Drink? The Eternal Dilemma of the Sealed, Collectible Bottle."

As the QD plotline veers off in its own unexplainable direction (within the beverage empire, people call themselves "Sodamen" and refer to their bodies as bottles), the novel feels lost in all its layers. Goldberg spent several years researching the book and inserts snippets of the results: medical reports, army songs, brochures, and newspaper articles. Still, the underlying and most compelling story—Lydia's quest to be good and strong and save people—seems too pure. She's compared to an angel at least once a chapter.

After writing Bee Season, which was a "gift" and took only two years to write, Goldberg said she set out to work on something more adventurous. She didn't want to be seen as a stereotypically female writer ("domestic dramas blah-blah-blah") specializing in neurotic Jewish families in the suburbs. In a letter to Aleksander Hemon, published in Bold Type three years ago, she wrote that literature needed more "trumpets and tubas," "fireworks and gongs." "Let us declare from every roof of every five-story walk up: LITERATURE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD!"

The maxim "write what you know"—particularly when it morphs into "write about yourself"—bothers Goldberg and she is "almost pathologically averse" to autobiographical fiction. The kind of novels she always imagined herself writing were more broad and ambitious. She sets impossibly high goals, she says, and then expects them to fail.

"It's this weird bipolar thing. I know I have ridiculously grand expectations. But I assume they'll forever be thwarted and foiled. It's safer that way. Then sometime—maybe—I'll be surprised."

 
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