Lewis’s usual approach is to take a group of characters to flesh out a complicated theme and turn it into a gripping story. And he’s done it again here ... This is a book about some brave, curious people who tried hard to swim against the tide. As always in a Lewis book they are brought vividly alive. The descriptions are punchy, the dialogue snappy. Lewis is a master of his form. He’s an expert, in fact. It’s just a shame that the voices of the experts in his book were ignored until it was too late.
Replete with unforgettable characters, taut pacing and the stakes of life or death (or, in this case, death or less death), you can see each scene of the blockbuster play out on the screen of your mind. Then, you remember the page-turner you are ripping through is essentially about bureaucracy and its failings ... The first half of the book... moves like a whitewater current. The second half, when COVID-19 descends, slows a bit, perhaps because it’s still so fresh and stomach-churning ... But perhaps what’s most illuminating about The Premonition is that the story is a Rorschach test to reveal your ideological worldview. A lefty will likely see the utter abandonment of government’s responsibility to its citizens due to political gain and vanity. A more conservative person might see a bloated apparatus of red tape and paper pushers dead set on preventing action ... Hopefully, a future president will pick up this book...and see it for the parable that it is.
... maddening ... Lewis makes the most of his conceit, flashing backward and forward through the decades to show us how and when the warning signs flashed ... cinematic ... Some of this story has been told before, including in this newspaper. But Lewis brings a welcome gimlet eye to the Trump era, when government officials abused by Trump were instinctively deified by liberal Twitter and cable TV ... But the lessons of the The Premonition apply to more than just the C.D.C. — they tell us why government bureaucracies fail.
Lewis is superb at this kind of thing. It is tremendous fun, tremendously told. It is a measure of his skill that he can talk about epidemiologists who call themselves Wolverines and not make them sound like utter ninnies ... Equally, it is hard to tell how much significance to place on it. The personal focus is the book’s strength and, in the sense that we are meant to take a wider message, its weakness ... Are these really the lone mavericks we are led to believe? Occasionally some chap called Neil Ferguson pops up, and you get a sense the Wolverines are not alone, or that their 'roughneck epidemiology' is not quite so revolutionary. Equally it may be that the US Centers for Disease Control really is, as his interviewees tell it, the useless laggard of international health. Or it may be that within that organisation too, at the same time, you could find people sounding the alarm and trying their best ... For British readers that is an obvious and significant flaw in the book. How much do you care about the idiosyncrasies of one country’s failure when we have our own failures to consider? It also feels like one, though, for American readers ... The stories that still need to be told, the ones where it is possible individuals really made a difference, are elsewhere ... But it is wrong to criticise a book for not being a different book. Lewis’s tale is instead perhaps best thought of as being to the pandemic what Band of Brothers is to the Second World War.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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...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 ... 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.
Michael Lewis explains [his] characters, interests and backgrounds, the papers they write and the work that they do in the easiest of prose, bringing exactly the right personal details to make the stories sing. He is funny, angry, and acute. As a reviewer, I find myself wanting to quote practically every other sentence in the book ... We need to listen to those mavericks and oddballs who are too modest and interested in their arcane subjects to thrust themselves on to public stages ... Sprinkled through this fascinating study of brilliance and its frustration are snippets that should be read—and heard—by anyone in any kind of management anywhere: the fact that in most companies ten per cent of the people ... Readers will swing from astonished admiration to sickening rage again and again, but Charity Dean’s church’s attempt to impose ignorance and failure on such a star, who has so much to offer, summed up for me everything that is wrong with the world. Thank goodness that it also has Michael Lewis in it and the whole cast of extraordinary characters to which he introduces us in his latest masterpiece.
... disappointing ... In Lewis’s book, we don’t get the perspective of any neutral observers. We hear only rarely from anyone within the CDC, and usually only to disparage it. On the other hand, we get a corroborating account of the system’s failures from another main character, a California public health official named Charity Dean. By the time Lewis starts telling readers about the potential spread of a novel coronavirus in China, Dean is already convinced that her state is imperiled and that the CDC ill not be any help at all ... Part of the surface appeal of The Premonition relates to how Lewis is able to fit his characters into a David-vs.-Goliath paradigm. As in his other books, we’re asked to root for the crusading outsiders who seem smarter and more intrepid in just about every way than the hidebound insiders of the status quo. Lewis falls back on this polarizing device at every turn ... The strenuously elevated drama sometimes approaches Marvel-level fluff ... Unfortunately, much of The Premonition feels murky and unconvincing. In many respects Lewis’s book comes across as a fast-moving thriller — a testament to his considerable skills as a writer — that leaves a sense of gaping plot holes. Some of these problems relate to his ticktock of events during the confusing early months of the pandemic and his effort to accentuate the visionary qualities of main characters like Mecher and Dean. Lewis presents these actors within an airless ecosystem, where the context of events — what was happening in the United States in January and February of 2020, and what occurred abroad as the World Health Organization took steps toward declaring a pandemic — is mostly omitted. I wondered how readers would be able to grasp that the characters in The Premonition were actually part of a much larger global contingent advocating for rapid action, rather than superheroes working in isolation ... The evidence suggests that a catastrophe resulted from ineptitude and the malign actions of a tiny cadre of political officials, not unimaginative bureaucrats or sclerotic agencies. At the tail end of the worst public health tragedy of the past century, that story is the one I want to read, lest we come to the wrong conclusions. Yes, heroes are to be appreciated; indeed, they have been working tirelessly and anonymously in every hospital and lab around the world for the past year. But there are still villains out there, too.
It is amazing to me that intelligent people in 2021 can survey the past year and conclude that some alternative set of non-pharmaceutical interventions would have made an appreciable difference in the spread of this magnificently resilient virus. But many such people do believe that, including the author of this book and its ostensible heroes ... The supposition that an earlier and stricter shutdown would have appreciably suppressed the virus may be a comforting counterfactual but bears no relationship to observable reality. The shutdowns did not save lives. The idea that they would have done so if only they had been imposed earlier—even supposing such a thing were politically feasible—is a species of historical fiction ... Much has gone wrong in America since the spring of 2020, but thank God we were saved from this rogue group of patriots.
As a diagnostic saga, the narrative of The Premonition makes for compelling reading...Lewis writes of the quest for an improved public health response to such devastating crises as an extended set piece in fearless and iconoclastic scientific inquiry, calling to mind the tense, high-stakes storyline of a Michael Crichton thriller or an episode of House ... None of this is to discredit the genuinely brave and heroic efforts of Dean, Hatchett, Mecher, and the other policy entrepreneurs in the bureaucratic morality play of The Premonition; science is by definition an experimental, provisional, trial-and-error endeavor, and it’s to be expected that the apostles of scientific inquiry will make mistakes and miscalculations, and correct subsequent plans and models accordingly. But it is to question whether the moral of Lewis’s science-triumphing-over-politics set piece is as pat and tidy as Lewis makes it seem ... In a book seeking to lay bare the government myopia that’s thwarted the effective adoption of pandemic prevention measures, it’s exceedingly strange that Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the culture hero of many liberal detractors of the Trumpian mishandling of the Covid crisis, merits but a single passing cameo appearance. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s decidedly more compromised—but still undeniably influential—White House coronavirus-response coordinator, doesn’t rate a mention at all. Even the signature villains of the hideously botched Trump Covid initiative barely put in an appearance, while Trump himself, with his surreal press conference diagnostics and crackpot racist outbursts about the pandemic’s origins, is a remote and muffled presence, the policy equivalent of the madwoman in the attic in a Victorian gothic romance ... It’s not hard to surmise the thinking behind this narrative choice. Without the messy and chaotic battle for power and influence both within the Trump White House and on the broader public health bureaucracy, The Premonition can deliver the same blandly reassuring moral that The Fifth Risk and Moneyball did: With a bold embrace of more innovative and data-driven fixes, the public health bureaucracy, like the civil service and the twenty-first-century model of baseball management, can play the starring role in an edifying parable of efficiency. Like those studies, The Premonition evokes a fundamentally frictionless world of nimbly-executed solutionism—a vision of a perennially improving civitas produced by just the right complement of innovative disruption, planning protocols, and data inputs ... To contend that yet another corps of strategically placed, data-savvy technocrats holds the key to our collective salvation is to disregard the bulk of modern American political history.