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Book Review: Pandemic and Politics in 'The Rationing,' by Charles Wheelan

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The Rationing by Charles Wheelan, W.W. Norton & Company, 412 pages. $26.95
  • The Rationing by Charles Wheelan, W.W. Norton & Company, 412 pages. $26.95

In 2014, former British prime minister David Cameron commissioned a study on the social and economic impact of the rise of antimicrobial-resistant infections — also known, somewhat zombie-apocalyptically, as "superbugs." The final report predicted that if resistance rates continued to increase, up to 300 million people worldwide could die prematurely by 2050.

That word "superbug" is much in circulation these days. Turn on NPR, and the odds are good that you'll hear a talking head pontificating about why we should all be living in fear of unstoppable microorganisms. As our collective antennae tune to that frequency, Dartmouth College senior lecturer and policy fellow Charles Wheelan brings us a debut satirical novel, The Rationing, with a scenario that feels particularly prescient.

In the not-too-distant future, the global medical community has vanquished the threat of superbugs with a miracle pill called Dormigen, which can cure any ailment from the common cold to a raging urinary tract infection. But just when America's stockpile of the drug starts to run dangerously low — the result of high-level malfeasance at its manufacturer — a once-innocuous virus called Capellaviridae suddenly turns deadly.

Its first victims are otherwise healthy people: a 43-year-old management consultant in San Francisco, followed by five middle-aged men and one female lacrosse player at the University of Vermont. There are only two solutions: acquire more Dormigen from another nation, or find some other means of stopping the virus.

The novel, framed as the authoritative account of "the Outbreak," chronicles the unfolding disaster from the perspective of a National Institutes of Health scientist who bore witness to the whole thing. His account begins with the first fatalities and follows the ensuing scramble of an impromptu task force of Washington, D.C., muckety-mucks, whose chief aims are to insulate themselves from public criticism, prevent widespread panic and minimize loss of life, more or less in that order.

Wheelan, a specialist in public policy and economics and a one-time political candidate (he launched an unsuccessful bid for Rahm Emanuel's Illinois Congressional seat in 2009), has written three previous nonfiction books: Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread From the Data, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science and Naked Money: A Revealing Look at Our Financial System. His interest in pandemics, at least as expressed in The Rationing, seems to lie more in the palace intrigue they generate than in the toll they exact on human beings.

There are no gangrenous limbs, no oozing rashes, nary a cubic milliliter of vomit in this novel. Instead, most of the action centers on a bunch of sleep-deprived D.C. creatures sitting around a conference table and bantering back and forth in sitcom-perfect sentences about which lives would merit saving, should Capellaviridae prove as infectious as the NIH models predict. This novel is, in sum, a very D.C. account of a very D.C. situation, narrated by a guy so painfully D.C. that you can practically hear his Florsheims squeaking down the corridors of power.

I have not done the math to back this up, but I would estimate that roughly 75 percent of The Rationing takes place in a conference room, or en route to a conference room, or around some kind of table. This bears mentioning, because the book is 412 pages long. No matter how you break it down, that ends up being a lot of table.

Most of the characters go unnamed, including the narrator; in typical Washington fashion, he refers to almost everyone by their job title: Chief of Staff, Communications Director, Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tie Guy. Curiously, the handful of characters who do get named are disproportionately female, and all of them are so one-dimensional that the specificity of a name seems superfluous.

Ellen, the narrator's cohabitating girlfriend, gets cast as an ambassador of the weaker sex, a boring mishmash of stereotypically female attributes who lacks the intellectual capacity to grasp the magnitude of his work. We learn that she attended Duke University and, at the time of the events described in the novel, worked for a public relations firm that represented either a bean dip or a nacho company. (The narrator informs us that he can't remember which, and it doesn't matter anyway.)

The narrator further reveals that Ellen often accused him of belittling her work — "which was scary given that I had only verbalized a small fraction of my thoughts," he tells us, as if this is supposed to make him look magnanimous. In one of the few scenes in which the two interact, he regards her with what comes across as totally unwarranted contempt, given that he has just resurfaced after vanishing without a trace for several days to work on the top-secret mystery of Capellaviridae:

Ellen had relatively little curiosity about my work but great interest in the people I had been doing it with. If I had been less exhausted I might have been more charitable, but I remember wondering if Ellen was going to have me describe their outfits, including the designers.

I really wish that this display of douchey masculinity were part of the novel's astute political satire. But this treatment of Ellen would only qualify as satire if the narrator were remotely self-aware, which he isn't, or if some external thing later forced him to confront his prickishness, which — spoiler alert — also doesn't happen.

In one passage, the narrator recounts meeting Jenna, a fellow Dartmouth grad and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee, whose suggestion that they take a walk together proves fateful on several fronts. He rhapsodizes about what might have happened had he not found her so alluring:

I was instantly attracted to Jenna and wanted her to sit down in that conference room with me. [...] What if Jenna were not so cute? I still ask her that sometimes: "What if you were a hairy guy who smelled bad? What if we had not gone on that walk?"

What if, in other words, he were not a straight man, powerless to resist the most basic urges of straight-manness? Given the consequences of this encounter for the Capellaviridae research efforts, countless more management consultants might have perished.

Meanwhile, people are getting sick, and some high-stakes diplomatic negotiations are happening. But the central tension becomes less and less interesting over hundreds of pages and interminable tracts of procedural dialogue among faceless politicos.

Could the anticlimax be the point — that in the conference rooms of D.C. saving actual human lives matters far less than being the guy who can offer the most incisive synopsis of the stakes? That might yield a satisfying read, but Wheelan's narrative approach often sacrifices nuance for the panoramic view, and the result more than occasionally feels like a Wikipedia article written by a graduate student.

There are some amusing moments in this novel, including a heroic cameo by Google Docs — which, I've always suspected, represents the zenith of human achievement. But for the most part, reading this book feels like watching a movie on an old-school projector with the image slightly out of alignment in the frame — you know that something interesting is probably going on, but all you can see is an awkward slice of the action.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this future disasterscape is that a certain type of protagonist — white, male, unduly privileged, casually misogynistic, generally unremarkable — seems to persist, like a tenacious microbe that won't admit defeat.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Incurable | Book review: The Rationing, Charles Wheelan"