A product of the virus

By Rhonda Dredge

Virus is a word on everyone’s lips, even those of three-year-olds and literary scholars, and ideas about viruses spread incredibly rapidly across the globe.

First comes the fear and prejudice, then the science, then the treatment, then the experience is interpreted.

We are still moving into the science stage of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

One of the best science commentaries was published last month in the latest London Review of Books which explains how COVID-19 works through its ribonucleic acid (RNA). 

The RNA in COVID-19 is a chain of nucleotides that is so long it is close to collapsing. It, therefore, needs some clever tricks to survive. These tricks are called a pseudoknot and slippery sequence.

The pseudoknot folds into a convoluted knot-like structure that poses a temporary roadblock for the protein synthesis machinery of the host cell by allowing the viral genome to be read in two different ways simultaneously. 

From a literary point of view, it will take a lot of time to turn this information into knowledge, hence the prediction that the first COVID-19 novel will be three years off as writers assimilate the implications at both a figurative and literal sense.

Last month, Penguin released a novel that is not a COVID-19 narrative but it does deal with contemporary responses to another deadly virus – HIV, which became an epidemic in 1980. 

Forty years later, there is still no cure for HIV but you can keep yourself and your partner safe during sex by using a physical barrier, such as a condom or by taking PrEP, an anti-HIV drug, (if you are HIV-negative); and by taking antiretroviral drugs (if you are HIV-positive) to reduce your viral load to an “undetectable” level.

The complications of this scenario work through a novel by RMIT lecturer in creative writing, Ronnie Scott, as it deals with the relationships between those who are HIV-positive and those who can’t be bothered taking PrEP.

The Adversary focuses on the fears that still exist among a small group of friends and the way the stigma of the HIV virus infects their relationships.

The protagonist practices a form of self-isolation, not going out, reluctant to party, suspicious of others yet hooking up with them over online dating sites to chat.

He lives in Brunswick and even travelling to Richmond is beyond the pale. A potential boyfriend is nicknamed Richmond Man, as he is a strange, rather backward species not up to the patter of the in-group.

There’s a form of coded language in the pick-up scene related to PrEP. the protagonist is lazy and prefers to keep his distance until his desire gets the better of him at the climax of the narrative.

This is a graceful novel, never obvious, always negotiated and understated when it comes to action so the reader is left imagining. 

At its heart is the intimate account of a young, impressionable lit student wedded emotionally to his older, more articulate housemate Dan.

Dan is an amusing character, caring and jokey but ultimately trying to distance himself from the clingy hero who desperately seeks his advice on everything.

First person narratives can be clunky but this one is dialogic rather than descriptive, in that it is narrated with the god-like figure of Dan constantly in mind. What will Dan think? What will the reader think?

Is Dan a manipulative bastard or a product of the virus/human relationship? •

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