In the precious reading time afforded by my daily commute, the world is often ending. Sometimes its Armageddon by plague (The Stand, The Dog Stars, Blindness); sometimes by zombies or vampires (World War Z, Warm Bodies, The Strain); sometimes by nature (The Age of Miracles). Every so often the end comes by way of nuclear war (A Canticle for Leibowitz), or global destitution (Ready Player One), or deadly sightings of something or someone as-yet unidentified (Bird Box). The method doesn’t matter; what does is the universal consensus among the fiction-writing community that shit is going to hit the fan at some point, and that humans are not emotionally prepared for that cleanup.
Despite a heretofore limitless appetite for end-of-the-world novels, I went into Station Eleven—which served six dutiful months un-cracked on my nightstand—feeling a bit burned out on the genre. What could Emily St. John Mandel say that so many others hadn’t already? What point could she make that would separate Station Eleven from the dozens of post-apocalyptic books that have come before, whose conclusions can be summed up in a few tweets: Fate is fickle; people are inherently bad, or inherently good, depending on the author. Humanity is resilient. These notions—sometimes mixed in with bits of zombie and/or vampire lore—are the main tenets of fiction’s collective Hot Take on the end of the world. Winter Is Coming, and people will do anything for a coat.
On premise, Station Eleven is little different from its predecessors. In the not-so-distant future, the fast-acting and fatal Georgia Flu wipes out ninety-nine percent of the population. Those who survive, whether through immunity or luck, spend 20 years watching the world transform from a panicked violent wasteland into a slightly less panicked and moderately less violent collection of wary societies, small towns and groups who have clung together in the pursuit of community or, in some cases, power. Among these communities is the Traveling Symphony, a roving band/theater troupe who walk from town to town performing Shakespeare. Kirsten Raymonde, who as a child briefly acted alongside famed thespian Arthur Leander, is a member of the Symphony, and spends her non-walking hours either performing on stage or scavenging abandoned houses for supplies and clues about the pre-plague world. Just 8 years old when the Flu struck, Kirsten often wonders whether the new paradigm is easier or harder for those who remember how things were.
Hers is a question central to the novel, and one that makes me understand Mandel’s knee-jerk reaction to Station Eleven being dubbed “science-fiction.” Sure, a loosely described medical situation is behind the fall of humanity, but this book is primarily concerned with both the days, months and years leading up to the Flu, and the years and decades that follow it. The mechanism by which this line in the sand of human history gets drawn is, for the most part, irrelevant. What matters is that once there were billions of people, and only one in 300 of them survived. What matters is that there used to be cars and planes and cell phones and refrigerators and lights, and now there aren’t. What matters is that some people were 50 when the world changed, others children, and still others were born into this new world—kids and teens who never knew electricity and marvel at the idea of air travel. Understanding one’s place in such a seismic change is more the focal point of Station Eleven than what set that change off, and in this way the novel brings to mind Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (upon which the HBO show is based), whose entire infuriating conceit is the unknowability of why shit happens.
Kirsten’s back story with Leander also plays a role in Station Eleven, as the novel alternates between present-day (20 years post-Flu) and the period of time leading up to the outbreak, those last unappreciated days of normalcy before all hell broke loose. Their stories—Kirsten’s, Leander’s—are mixed in with flashbacks from Arthur’s first wife Miranda, his old friend Clark, and finally Jeevan, a paparazzo-turned-reporter-turned-aspiring EMT who is watching Leander play King Lear in the novel’s opening (pre-Flu) scene. There are times earlier in Station Eleven when the link between Kirsten and the others seems tenuous at best—a less-than-perfect attempt on Mandel’s part to create a human connection that justifies her love of before-and-after moments. But as the narrative unfolds, so too do a series of developments that cast some of these relationships in new light and serve to tie everything together.
Mandel’s obsession with the blissfully ignorant days before the Flu, her constant need to remind us of the things we take for granted—technology, but also civility and order—can make Station Eleven seem preachy, though admittedly in a wistful sort of way. Fortunately, the back-and-forth narrative, half of which is spent in scenes that predate the Flu, distracts from what might otherwise have become a grating refrain, and Mandel’s small touches of apocalyptic originality—the Symphony among them—make the novel compulsively readable. This is a book not about a flu but about people, not about an outbreak but about an aftermath. It’s about what it means to be human, and how and why we seek out that humanity even in the face of disaster. As suggested by the Star Trek quote painted on the Symphony’s caravan, because survival is inefficient.
TITLE: Station Eleven
AUTHOR: Emily St. John Mandel
PAGES: 333 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Last Night In Montreal, The Lola Quartet
SORTA LIKE: Beautiful Ruins meets The Dog Stars
FIRST LINE: “The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.”
MY REVIEWS OF:
The Dog Stars
The Age of Miracles
A Canticle for Leibowitz
Ready Player One