It is hard to think of a writer who has had more success than Michael Lewis at turning forbiddingly complex situations into propulsive nonfiction narratives. His first book, the semi-autobiographical Liar’s Poker, drew on his own experience as a bond salesman in the 1980s to tell a vivid story about the predatory culture of Wall Street. He has since repeated the trick, though with fewer autobiographical elements, with an impressive range of subjects, from statistical analysis in baseball (Moneyball) to the credit default swap market and the 2008 financial crisis (The Big Short). His success derives from an ability to take incredibly wonkish-sounding premises and turn them into the kinds of stories that get made into films starring, respectively, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale.
His new book, The Premonition, is the story of a group of medics and scientists who attempt to get the US government to take pandemic response seriously. In a New York Times interview in January 2021, Lewis described the book, which he was then still working on, as “a superhero story where the superheroes seem to lose the war”. It’s a little grandiose, but it’s an accurate enough elevator pitch. Lewis’s main subjects are a group of extraordinarily dedicated, resourceful and conscientious people who understand how drastically underprepared America is for a viral pandemic. They know what needs to be done to redress the situation, but are up against the fragmented dysfunction of the federal government and the malicious indifference of the Trump White House.
Lewis is unashamedly and, at times, cornily earnest about what he refers to at one point as this “rogue group of patriots working behind the scenes to save the country”. One such rogue is Charity Dean, a deputy director of California’s Department of Public Health, who becomes, in the days of Covid’s first emergence, a kind of underdog heroine in the fight to get the federal authorities to take the threat seriously. Then there are Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, who shaped pandemic planning in the George W Bush administration, and later, with Dean and others, worked from outside the nucleus of power to try to mitigate the unfolding catastrophe.
If this is a superhero story, it’s one that lacks a supervillain. Though you might expect a book by Lewis about the US government’s grotesque mishandling of the pandemic to be a late entry into the Big Trump Book canon, the 45th president is a mercifully peripheral presence in its pages. As with his last book, The Fifth Risk, Lewis’s approach here is to find a small number of unheralded individuals working within vast systems, and use them to portray the workings (or, in this case, not-workings) of those systems. The malevolent force in The Premonition is institutional malaise. Lewis’s underlying argument here, though, is hardly compatible with the conservative “big government doesn’t work” boilerplate, which posits centralisation as the root of all societal evil. Rather, he portrays a system that is both incredibly vast and insufficiently centralised. “There’s no one driving the bus,” as Joe DeRisi, one of Lewis’s main subjects, puts it. DeRisi, a biochemist who developed an extremely useful technology for rapid viral testing, spends much of the book banging his head against institutional brick walls in an attempt to get his innovation adopted as part of a wider campaign against Covid.
And so although the book’s action takes place within the context of the Trump administration’s drastic mishandling of the crisis, Lewis is more interested in the political conditions that exist before the pandemic. Fiasco though Trump’s leadership was, there is no attempt to lay the entire blame for the crisis at the feet of his administration. To put it in medical terms, Lewis diagnoses Trump as a comorbidity.
It is the CDC – the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – that emerges as the main antagonist. As the country’s public health agency, the CDC is, as its name suggests, technically responsible for preventing the spread of disease. But the book presents a damning portrayal of an organisation in which no one is willing to risk getting fired by making a wrong move, and in which an institutional abundance of caution amounts to a form of recklessness. The fact that the director of the organisation is appointed by, and can be fired by, the president also means it’s a role that tends to go to yes-men. As Lewis writes of Trump’s differing relationships with CDC director Robert Redfield, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “If Donald Trump had gotten up and said, ‘Fauci, you’re fired,’ nothing would have happened, which is likely why he never did it […] To fire a competent civil servant is a pain in the ass. To fire a competent presidential appointee is as easy as tweeting.”
Although Lewis does justice to the complexity of the scientific and institutional problems he’s examining, he rarely gets bogged down in their density. He is at least as interested in characterisation as he is in, say, explaining the science of stuff like viral genetic sequencing. The wager here is that the investment in the former pays off by getting the reader through a fair amount of the latter. And so he devotes a large proportion of what is a relatively short book to establishing his characters’ back stories. We first encounter Charity Dean, for instance, dealing more or less single-handedly with a TB outbreak in her Santa Barbara jurisdiction, trying to get a useless coroner’s office to perform an autopsy on a TB-riddled corpse. (By the time I got to her standing in the parking lot of a morgue, rolling up her sleeves and opening the corpse’s ribs with a pair of garden shears as a bunch of terrified men in Hazmat suits look on, I had narrowed down my casting preference to either Kristen Bell or Reece Witherspoon.)
When Lewis gets to the pandemic itself, surprisingly late in the book, he’s faced with a contradictory problem, with respect to the imperatives of narrative journalism: a major historical crisis is unfolding, but it’s happening mostly in the form of Zoom calls. (This, of course, is also the contradictory problem of our time: the moment itself is dramatic, but the individual’s experience of it is profoundly static.) A representative scene has Dean and DeResi on a Zoom call with Priscilla Chan, philanthropist and wife of Mark Zuckerberg:
“The meeting with the Biohub was meant to start at one thirty in the afternoon on April 29th. Shortly after one thirty, Charity unmuted herself and turned on her video and tried to stall by making small talk with Priscilla Chan about their children. At length Priscilla said, ‘Um, maybe we should just get started?’ Joe DeRisi was in his own box. He had one of those faces that would always look younger than it was, Charity thought.”
I was mostly willing to park my epistemological doubts about the position Lewis adopts as a kind of omniscient third-person narrator, but I did find myself questioning whether, with this kind of scene, he’s encountering the formal limits of the kind of pacy, thriller-ish style he favours. At times, in fact, the book can seem less like a work of narrative journalism than an exceptionally vivid script treatment. Of Dean, for instance, he writes: “She’d crash meetings that her boss didn’t want her to attend and announce her arrival by dropping this huge binder on the table: Boom!”
I found this sort of approach strangely unsuited to the story the book tells, largely because it never quite translates into a story at all. And yet, in the end, without his ever having to spell it out, Lewis’s message comes across very powerfully: the US government, in its institutional dysfunction, is in danger of abandoning its citizens to a private sector that is even less equipped to deal with large-scale disasters such as Covid. The Premonition ends on a profoundly depressing note, with Dean abandoning the civil service to found a healthcare startup. “She’d entered the private sector,” writes Lewis, “with the bizarre ambition to use it to create an institution that might be used by the public sector.” When she tells people in the business world that she wants to save the country from another Covid-like catastrophe, she says, she gets blank looks. But when she tells them she wants to do “private government operations”, like a kind of healthcare Blackwater, their eyes light up. “Oh wow,” they say, “you could take over the world.”
• The Premonition: A Pandemic Story is published by Allen Lane (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.