Cambridge author Phillip Brown’s Diary of the Last Man is a novel for our times
Cambridge author Phillip Brown has returned with a new book, Diary of the Last Man, which touches on a subject to which most of us, sadly, can now relate.
Stories about life-threatening viruses are nothing new, but not too many focus solely on the psychological effects of such threats, typically favouring the action taken to combat the crisis. Diary of the Last Man, which takes the form of a diary, was written, Phillip says, to provide such a focus and he admits it was not an easy book to write.
Moreover, he found that events he was imagining were actually being presented in real news bulletins the following day, as though he was somehow predicting what was going to happen.
“It was motivated by this terrible legacy of the pandemic on people’s mental health and what I wanted to do was to focus on mental health issues,” explains Phillip. “It was a difficult book to write.”
Diary of the Last Man is a fictional diary written by a nameless ‘patient’ who is undergoing compulsory experimental trials aimed at discovering a vaccine to combat a virus which is quickly decimating the entire planet and has come to be known as the ‘Omega Strain’.
Phillip started writing the book during the pandemic. “It’s first-hand stuff,” he notes, “and things that I was thinking of as I was writing tended to crop up in the news afterwards. It was really worrying, to the extent that I felt I can’t go on with this; I seem to be predicting what’s coming... So it was a response to the lockdown while in lockdown.”
Phillip says the unnamed patient in the book is in the middle of a pandemic which “really does threaten the existence of mankind and he’s taken into an institution, one of many, that are subject to experimentation in an effort to find an answer to this so-called Omega Strain”.
The book traces the man’s mental development and deterioration, a process which should be seen as a continual contest between the essential themes of hope and despair.
“It points to some of the features of the mental strain under which people have existed: uncertainty about the future, the strain on relationships, the break-up of many... and the people living alone especially, people of all ages – not just the old and the infirm but young people as well,” notes Phillip.
Self-doubt, anxiety and feelings of insecurity all come into play within the story. “I guess one of the messages is that people must live together,” says Phillip, “no man is an island.” He adds: “Who of us can say that we don’t have the bleakest of thoughts from time to time, or wonder about our own sanity from time to time?
“But given the pandemic, given a situation like that, then of course these feelings of self-doubt and anxiety are obviously exacerbated and they test people to the limit. That’s why I think we have a terrible situation – I don’t think most people, or the powers that be, understand what a problem this is right now and continues to be. There’s no easy way out of it.”
Does Phillip think that people may have had enough of hearing about viruses and pandemics? “Oh absolutely, yes,” he says. “That is a problem but I don’t think I could have left it; the point is how long are we going to leave it? I think the effects of this pandemic are going to last for a very, very long time, although people might see themselves in the book.
“Hopefully they will. One thing about writing a book, I think, is if it’s a serious book you can see yourself in it – that is to say you realise that you’re not alone.”
Diary of the Last Man is due to be published this month.