The novel opens with a Toronto production of King Lear, in which the fifty-one year movie star Arthur Leander is playing the title role. Backstage, Kirsten, a young girl in the production, prepares to make her entrance. Suddenly, there is a commotion onstage. Arthur Leander collapses, having had a heart attack during one of his monologues near the end of the play. A paramedic named Jeevan who had been in the audience jumps out and attempts to resuscitate the actor with no success. Arthur is declared dead and his body is removed.
Backstage, things are in disarray, as the evening’s production is cancelled. Kirsten is unable to get in touch with her parents, and the child wrangler, Tanya, gives her a gift to help soothe her mind: a glass paperweight with a cloud on this inside. The actors meet in the lobby and have a drink and discuss Arthur and his sudden death. He didn’t appear to have any family besides his three ex-wives and one son, and the only person who he seemed to be close with was Tanya.
Outside, Jeevan gets in touch with his girlfriend, who was supposed to meet him outside the theatre. He is miffed that she did not wait for him. He then receives a call from his old friend Hua. Hua is working at a hospital and warns Jeevan of a new illness called the Georgia Flu that has an incredibly fast incubation period and is killing people at an alarming rate. He warns Jeevan to stock up on food and avoid contact with other people. Jeevan immediately goes to the supermarket and stocks up on food and supplies for a potential coming apocalypse. On his way to his brother’s apartment, Jeevan calls Laura to warn her, but she is skeptical.
Arthur’s agent begins to make phone calls to his relatives, of which there are few. He makes a call to his ex-wife Miranda, who is on business in Malaysia. Miranda is the CEO of a shipping company, and is standing on the beach examining a fleet of ships when she receives the call from Clark, one of Arthur’s old friends. He explains that Arthur collapsed during a production of King Lear. Miranda ruminates on the banality of the phone call.
The novel opens with plenty of allusions to Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Those who are in the production are referred to by the names of the characters they play (Gloucester, Goneril, Edgar, etc.), with the exception of those who will go on to be important characters: Arthur and Kirsten. The allusions to the happenings in the play are mostly used to describe characters. For example, though we never see the actions onstage, Gloucester watches with horror as Arthur dies, removing the bandages from over his eyes that his character wears after being blinded.
Jeevan’s presence at the play, as we will learn later in the novel, holds significance. His and Arthur's paths have crossed before, and we get clues to their connection. The narrative device of skipping back and forth in time adds elements of situational irony that result in plot twists being revealed in the past, rather than in the future.
The novel operates on three planes: the past, the present and the future. The opening of the novel introduces the reader to the present: a world in which the main characters have interacted and made choices with which we are not yet aquainted. The fact that the first section called “The Theatre” revolves so much around the events relating to Arthur’s death and the aftermath highlights the irony of the complete lack of consequence Arthur’s death has on the events that transpire in the following days.
The name of the section—“The Theatre”—sets up a major theme of the novel. The theatre is something that exists in all “time zones” of the book: past, present, and future. The importance of theatre as a way of expressing oneself reveals itself as more than a luxury for an advanced society; it becomes a necessity even in a struggling one. The names of the sections end up becoming thematically relevant not only to their individual sections, but to the novel as a whole.
The section ends with a chapter that explains to the reader what is about to be lost after the flu. Using specific examples and imagery, Mandel juxtaposes the comforts of modern life—the theatre, supermarkets, cars, hospitals—with the world to come. “No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights.” The intensely nostalgic imagery of the modern way of life serves as a direct contrast to the chapters that follow.