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Book Reviews

The Plague

by Kevin Chong

A fatal epidemic reminiscent of the bubonic plague forces a bustling metropolis into quarantine. Citizens oscillate between panic and indifference, cautiousness and carelessness, filling their indefinite hiatus from real life with distracting trips to the movies, cafés, and drinking holes. Their mortality looms as they mourn loved ones, both those dying painfully inside the city’s overfilling pop-up hospitals and the ones unreachable outside its now-guarded borders.

This is the story in Albert Camus’s 1947 existentialist novel, The Plague. It is also, as Vancouver writer Kevin Chong cogently recognizes, the perfect skeleton for a modern dystopian tale.

Chong skilfully updates details of the original book to reflect and comment on contemporary events, including timely social and political issues like poverty, drug abuse, racism, cyber security, immigration, and government conspiracy theories. (The inclusion of a charismatic celebrity mayor whose sex scandal fails to derail his career is particularly on point.) New iterations of Camus’s characters represent the different ethnic backgrounds and genders that populate present-day Vancouver, with backstories and fates rewritten to make them more believable for our time. It’s nice to see an author put such measured effort and thought into his own twist on a classic story.

Chong also updates the manner in which the story is told – there’s a more propulsive plot and less philosophical meandering. But it isn’t entirely clear whether this is deliberate or simply a reflection of different authorial sensibilities. Whether the divergence in tone appears as a draw or a drawback will depend on the reader. Those looking for a more literal, action-driven tale will gravitate toward Chong’s iteration. Someone looking for rumination and reflection embedded in a more abstract presentation will likely prefer Camus’s original.

A focus on the absurdity and futility of the human condition, which was a thematic constant in Camus’s work, is quite notably missing from Chong’s version. And aspects of the original work that could have been omitted or improved upon – like the messy third-party narrators whose interjections and framing often distract from the narrative – are lamentably unchanged or, in some cases, even amplified.

This doesn’t mean Chong misses his mark, however. Whether read in isolation or in the context of a postmodern commentary on the original novel (the former is perhaps the better choice), Chong’s rendition of The Plague stands up as a dystopian drama with nuanced characters and tense relationships. The Vancouver setting is familiar and well rendered and the story contains powerful messages about the way we live now. In reworking Camus, Chong manages to frankly confront the ailments of an urban environment that is sick in more ways than one.