In The Blondes, a novel by Emily Schultz, a contagious disease afflicts only flaxen-haired females. Prior to death, victims of Siphonaptera Human Virus (SHV), popularly known as “Gold Fever” or “California Rabies,” are highly prone to violent attacks.
“ ‘Save it, Burroughs! Her brain’s bleached. She can’t hear you,’ ” one police officer shouts to another at John F. Kennedy International Airport, while subduing a flight attendant. The woman attempted to maul a toddler.
The airport scene is a bit of a nod to The Blondes’ roots, Schultz says.
“I was on a plane with my husband, reading a Vanity Fair from the seat-back pocket, and it had this Gucci ad of these blondes in the jungle. They looked really creepy, and I made this creepy [deepened] voice, ‘THE BLONDES.’ That’s how the book started—from something that looked like horror to me,” she says.
Schultz and her husband, Brian Joseph Davis, are the founders and publishers of Joyland, an online literary magazine. She is the author of a novel by the same name, as well as Heaven Is Small, and the short story collection Black Coffee Night. She was raised in Canada, and resides in Brooklyn, New York.
And yes, she’s a brunette—therefore safe from the fictional pandemic of her own devising. But what about all those blonde friends?
“That was something I was really worried about, how they would take the book, but most of them really liked it, which—I was very relieved,” Schultz says. “I did try to make all the blonde characters, aside from the ones that rage out and attack and kill people—I did try to make all of them really strong, smart women, not the stereotypical dumb blondes. I think that helped; I hope that helped.
Fleshed-out blondes include Dr. Kovacs, a brilliantly blunt cultural studies professor, and Larissa, a successful arts professional and well-married mother of one. But the book belongs to a natural redhead named Hazel Hayes.
Hazel is a Canadian grad student who travels to New York on the eve of the pandemic, on the research recommendation of her professor and sometime-lover Karl. From the questionable safety of his cabin in the woods outside Toronto, she recounts that ill-timed trip and its aftermath to their (unexpected) unborn child.
“If you survive, the world you grow up in will be one that has experienced intense panic and distrust, violence and hysteria—though that’s a loaded word. I don’t think I would have used it before this past year. But now? All of us living with a disease that affects only girls and women? Hysteria is so bang on,” she writes.
Addressing the fetus by an array of questionable endearments (e.g. “little pasta pot,” “my little goiter,” “my little remora”), Hazel shares the many ignominies of pandemic panic, including eight weeks’ incarceration in a Women’s Entry and Evaluation center (WEE), when she tried to cross the Canadian border to return home.
“Writing a novel, you have some idea of where it starts and where it’s headed, but the WEE was a surprise. Because Hazel was an in-between color, she didn’t know if she was at risk or not, and they didn’t know either, so they treated her as if she were,” she says. “Delightfully, making her a redhead just worked out. Regardless, I think, of what the reader’s hair color is or hair type, you kind of become Hazel, you kind of become someone who is just thrown into the thick of it—at least that was what I was hoping.”
Two parts terrifying, one part wry, The Blondes blithely satirizes epidemics, academics, media, motherhood, and materialism in the context of a toe-curling horror story.
“Take this as a sign of the times, baby: a man had been mauled in front of us by a child who behaved like a rabid dog, and I was thinking about pedicures,” Schultz writes.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.