Searching for Eurydice in Pandemic Brooklyn
Carley Moore, author of "Panpocalypse," on transforming the Orpheus myth into a queer narrative about disability during Covid times
I first read Carley Moore’s Panpocalypse while in line to get a COVID test during the early days of the Omicron surge. I had expected the wait to be long, but not four hours long, and the book kept me excellent company: both riveting and poignantly, painfully apt. If the long wait felt like a temporal wormhole, a reversion to pre-vaccine times, Panpocalypse clinched the time slip, capturing as it does that early phase of the pandemic with astonishing acuity—the upset and bewilderment, the grief and despair, the sense of indefinite, interminable hiatus. “The pandemic, the Trump presidency, everything that’s happened this year, my medicine,” observes Moore’s protagonist. “They have all disrupted my notions of time”.
Moore’s third novel (after The Not Wives and The Stalker Chronicles), Panpocalypse was conceived as a partially serialized novel. The first half documents the events and mood of pandemic-era New York from May-June 2020, as Moore’s autofictional narrator Orpheus (aka Carley) bikes the city in search of her ex-girlfriend Eurydice. When she gets invited to a secret party called Le Monocle in the backyard of a Brooklyn garden apartment, the novel’s rules suddenly, deliciously change—and we find ourselves transported to Paris in 1935.
“I’m logging into the autofiction archive,” Orpheus/Carley tells us. “I bring solitude, disability, illness, love”. The novel is shaped by Moore’s long history with disability and chronic pain. Written in part with the support of transcription software, it offers incisive critical commentary on disability and pandemic time in the COVID era.
My test results from that day never came back. (That urgent-care clinic ended up shutting down temporarily due to understaffing). Moore herself contracted COVID a few weeks later. I interviewed her in late January, as Omicron waned and her cat Pippi did her best to destroy my book.
Megan Milks: What’s it like releasing this book into the world now?
Carley Moore: Like everybody, I didn’t think we’d be in this third wave. I really thought when Panpocalypse came out that COVID would be over in some way. I want COVID to be over completely. But I hope that if it’s not—which seems likely because it seems like it’s just going to be a virus that we live with in various forms for a long time—that [Panpocalypse] is a comfort to people or else just helps them see the different places we’ve been in terms of this virus.
[The novel chronicles] the first wave of COVID when we were in total lockdown in March 2020. Orpheus is looking for some kind of community and wondering if she’s ever going to be able to have sex again, and she’s also looking for her lost love Eurydice. There’s a lot of that early anxiety. The city’s empty, and there are morgue tents everywhere. Now it’s such a different version of things, although an equally difficult and challenging one—maybe not equally, but still very hard.
I’ve also now had COVID, which I had three weeks ago. And that is really different from what happens in the book. The book is autofiction, but it has lots of fantasy elements, and I didn’t imagine that. It’s not that I didn’t think I would ever get COVID, but I was writing it from a place of like, the privilege of not having had COVID. Now there’s a whole other layer for me.
MM: Orpheus doesn’t get COVID, but throughout, she is commenting on and thinking through her experience of pandemic time, especially as it relates to sick time, which she describes as characterized by drag and disruption, by slowness and loops. The book is structured in this way too, as a form of what you later describe as disabled narrative. Did the structure emerge organically?
CM: I had written a lot of the first half before we started publishing it in the summer of 2020. I wanted it to be diaristic and just kind of everyday, much in the way that autofiction sometimes is. Especially queer autofiction. I wanted it to be a chronicle of what was going on in New York City during lockdown. But I also wanted it to be fiction. The character is Orpheus, but also Carley and then occasionally Charley. I’ve always loved that myth. Orpheus’s challenge to get Eurydice back from the underworld is that—he’s allowed to take her but he can’t look back at her until they’re outside of hell. Because he loves her so much, it’s impossible for him to do that. He looks back and then she’s gone from him forever. I’ve always loved the impossible challenge of that story and also just the cruelty of the story. I liked the “don’t look back” as a circular gesture too—like, how are we to ever understand history if we’re not looking back? And also we look back and then continuously don’t understand history, even though we’re looking back at it.
I think I got the bike before I had the idea for the for the book. The bike is right there, Lana.
MM: That’s a great looking bike.
CM: I love her so much. I got her in April before everyone was buying bikes. I was really lucky. I was living in Manhattan then and all my friends are in Brooklyn—and I was like, “if I don’t find some way to move myself, I’m gonna go crazy.” So that was a way of creating movement too.
I’ve thought a lot about how as a disabled person, I’ve always been kind of resistant to narrative and things moving forward and having resolution and like the whole dramatic arc thing, the Aristotelian arc. As a child when I was very sick and not really able to walk or not able to move forward in the ways that people wanted me to—I think there’s something important about thinking about narrative differently for different groups of people. Why do all narratives have to have such a forward momentum?
MM: Late in the book, you acknowledge the way that you’ve used the bicycle as a plot device.
CM: That was another way to trick myself, or to trick the character into having to move around the city and have interactions—and also to be looking for Eurydice and going to Brooklyn and then eventually going to the club Le Monocle—this special queer club where people will be able to dance and touch each other. I didn’t realize how much the bike would actually do that, but I think it really did. I needed that help. I’ve never had a wheelchair, or a motorized wheelchair or anything. I’ve not needed it since I started taking medication, but I definitely think I needed it for a couple years in my childhood and didn’t have it. I’ve thought of Lana, the bike, in some ways as some kind of disability vehicle for me. Even though most people would say, “well, if you’re disabled, how can you ride a bike?” I do have a lot of mobility and balance now that I didn’t have when I was much younger.
MM: One of the things I love about the book is all the different rhythms that show up: the daily records, the weekly reports.
CM: There’s a lot going on in the news and protesting that becomes a historical record of some kind.
MM: And then we get this plunge into the past. When did you know the novel would become a time travel narrative?
CM: One of my favorite books of all time is [Octavia Butler’s] Kindred. It starts so quickly. The protagonist Dana’s in her living room. And then she’s pulled back—because of [Rufus], who’s the son of a plantation owner. They have some kind of historical cosmic connection, and he’s about to drown. She’s pulled suddenly, almost instantly back to this plantation to save him. That book has made me want to play with time travel. I admire the speed at which she does it—it feels like a confidence thing like for me, because I’m such a realist in my writing.
I don’t know when I decided to do time travel. But it made sense because I had based the contemporary queer club that Orpheus gets to go to on this famous 1930s Parisian bar called Le Monocle, which was an underground bar for lesbians primarily. We mostly know about it because the photographer Brassaï did a whole book of photographs of these women, these beautiful black and white photographs. It suddenly started to make sense that the character would actually go back in time through the portal of Le Monocle, which was happening in a garden apartment in Brooklyn.
I made the portal in Prospect Park underneath one of those wooden bridges. And I had a character from the past come through first, Charley. Who is also Carley, who is also me.
MM: And they’re both Orpheus.
CM: And then they go back and have sex and then turn into one being.
MM: I really salute you on that excellent doppelbanging scene. It seems really important that pleasure is what opens up the portal.
CM: That’s true. It is different than Kindred in that it’s trauma and fear that pull Dana back in. This is very much about pleasure and orgasm.
MM: Yeah, and community – through this opening up, becoming part of this community based on touch which Orpheus/Carley’s been looking for the whole book. It’s such a powerful, astonishing moment. It’s really wonderful to read and experience.
There’s a line in Panpocalypse describing novels as “a work around reality,” and the portal is one of the ways that idea appears. A workaround is enabled through this magnificent opening.
CM: COVID has [required] a giant attempt to work around reality. We’ve been able to sometimes, but also a lot of times haven’t. As a person who has been single for a lot of COVID—in the beginning, it was like “Okay, you’re not allowed to see anyone, you’re not allowed to touch anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re single, that’s just too bad.” I did that for six months, but then single people and queer people in particular started to have more nuanced conversations about it. Queer people have already been through HIV and AIDS and had to come up with different ways to think about how to live in the midst of a virus. It couldn’t all be like, “Okay, I’m never going to touch anyone again.” I was trying to do a lot of workarounds.
MM: In the 1935 section, there’s a kind of jailbreak scene where Charley is part of an effort to support two queer women who are escaping an asylum. That scene seems to highlight a shared history of queer and disabled oppression via institutionalization. Why was it important to bring that history into that book?
CM: A couple of sites in Paris have been interesting to me—another (in addition to Le Monocle) is the [clinic] that probably the most famous neurologist of all time, [Jean-Martin] Charcot, created [at the Salpêtrière asylum]. It was a huge sensation, a phenomenon that had never really existed before. Within that space he institutionalized—I don’t actually know the numbers, but probably thousands of women who were hysterics, who were nymphomaniacs (these are all the old terms, obviously), sexual deviants. People who genuinely had neurological disorders would also wind up in there.
I’ve always been interested in that place as a person with a neurological disorder, because one of the things that disabled people fear the most is being institutionalized and having our rights taken away. I had a very formative experience as a little girl of going into the hospital for a week when I was 10 and going through all these tests. I convinced myself that I was going to be stuck in the hospital for the rest of my life.
I wanted to think about [the hospital] as a place of captivity. And where I live—you can see through my window the beginning of the SUNY Downstate Hospital complex. This actually goes on for ten to fifteen blocks. Further away, like ten blocks away, are some of the old mental illness facilities that are now abandoned.
I’ve always been obsessed with abandoned hospitals and institutions. I think of them as haunted places that have unique histories to tell. Somehow those things kind of merged when I got the characters to Paris, and I was like, “Well, what are they going to do here?” It didn’t feel right to go to Paris and only have fun. Like, “Okay, you can have fun, but you also have to do some work.” These things actually go together.
MM: Were there any particular parallels you were hoping to highlight between that period and today?
CM: I was thinking about all the people in hospitals, dying alone because of COVID and not having access to their families. Hospitals are places of healing, but so much of my experience in medical situations has been having to explain oneself. I have had amazing neurologists my whole life—unlike many people, especially women, who are disabled, I’ve had to explain myself a lot less. I had this really extraordinary neurologist when I was a little girl, who didn’t know what was wrong with me. This was before the internet, and she basically went to conferences for three years and talked about me and finally met a doctor in Toronto who was like, “Oh, I think I know what she has.”
We were talking about time and loops. You can get trapped in these loops of never getting the care that you need, especially when you have chronic conditions where you’re searching and searching and just looping around. I also have stomach issues and for the last five years I’ve been treating it with diet stuff. I just got a diagnosis and I can’t believe it took five years. That’s such a common thing—to get trapped in these systems.
I was thinking about that in terms of COVID too, especially people who have long COVID. Like I say in the book, we’re all disabled now. The country’s having to grapple now with all of these disability issues that nobody really had to before.
MM: You note in the book that Orpheus is your first disabled character. Why did it seem important to center disability so much in this book?
CM: The question for me is also “why did you finally do it, Carley?” Because I didn’t do it in The Not Wives. I didn’t do it in Stalker Chronicles. 16 Pills, my essay collection, has a lot of disability stuff, but I have lots of other novels that have never been published and none of them has disabled characters either. It just felt like time to come out about that in a fictional form, especially if I’m doing autofiction. I was tired of not writing about it.
MM: What did you learn about writing a novel by approaching this one as a serialization?
CM: I wanted to trick myself into writing another novel because I was having such a hard time with second novels. I thought, if I have readers waiting for something, it will force me to actually keep going. There is this weird, productivity kind of anti-disability time thing that I created for myself, in a way, now that we’re talking about it
I’m not a Dickens fan, but I romanticize that time in publishing where writers would get paid for every word. It’s just how magazine publishing used to be. There was a desire to romanticize past times in publishing. And to be part of a weird group of writers who had serialized things.
It was also a way to keep myself moving forward without actually looking back. That’s been important for me to learn how to do because usually when I look back is when I get muddled or like, “Oh, this isn’t working,” or I start tinkering with stuff, when I really need to keep going.
MM: So this credo of Orpheus—the “don’t look back”—was operational for you as a writer.
CM: Yeah. [Laughs] If you want to have a book or if you want to have a girlfriend, you can’t look back.