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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: A Review

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a novel about endings both big and small. It begins with the last moments of Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor who suffers a fatal heart attack during a production of King Lear and then goes from there to describe the end of the entire world. The “Georgian Flu” wipes out 99% of the human race, as well as many of the characters prior to that collapse. Although the novel orbits around the world created by near total end of the human race, it also circles back to the lives of characters before the Flu, hopping back and forth through time with such regularity it’s impossible to say that the novel is truly “post-apocalyptic.” Much of the novel seems to take place pre-apocalypse. Strange coincidences and relationships unify these narratives as does the sense the novel is concerned with the theme of endings. While the beginning of the book might be considered the beginning of the end, it’s purpose is the same as later sections, to describe a thing and how it ceased to be. Throughout the text, Mandel describes all the things that no longer exist after the collapse, the weird nostalgia the characters feel for such diverse phenomena as cell phones, airplane travel, and corporate jargon. As Faulkner said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past."

Sunset over Santa Fe by Morgan Crooks, 2013

So while the world dies within the first dozen or so pages of the story, it’s never truly gone. Once the general outlines of the collapse are clear, the galloping epidemic, the panic and collapse, the novel whips ahead to a couple of decades later as the world begins to ‘soften,’ as one character describes it. The nightmarish early years post-epidemic have gradually changed into a slow reemergence of life and routine. Towns are beginning to reform, and a band of actors and musicians travels between them to provide entertainment and a glimpse of the vanished world already dimming in the memories of the survivors. One of these actors, Kirsten, a young girl on the same stage Arthur Leander died on carries with her mementoes of that night. The Traveling Symphony, as the troupe calls itself, performs King Lear in a town they’ve come to think of as safe and friendly, only gradually understanding that the town they knew is gone, taken over by a violent cult. The  troupe flees from the town, pursued by members of the cult. Kirsten becomes separated, lost in the decaying wilderness of lower Michigan.

Then the reader is hurled back in time to pick up the thread of the dead actor’s first wife. This pattern plays out over the rest of the novel, jumping through the decades, alluding to the life and works of Shakespeare, and the influence of a comic book drawn and published by the first wife, that Kirsten now carries with her. All of these elements are bound together, forming a tapestry of post-apocalypse’s society, and the glimmers of a new civilization.

In a novel that skips back and forth through time, the question emerges - to what purpose? How do these temporal dislocations add meaning to the overall story? What is the plot when so much of it basically functions as tangential flashbacks of the characters in the post-apocalyptic setting?  For the most part, the thread connecting these narratives is not one of revelation as much as thematic. This is a novel that begins with the end and ends with a sort of new beginning. What exists between those two points is a collage of the various ways relationships, art projects, and entire civilizations come to termination. There is an entire section of the book simply entitled “The Terminal.”

Of course, Station Eleven is not the only book to be set in a post-apocalypse or even the only book to describe the end of the world coming through the action of a flu. Obvious parallels exist between this novel and The Stand, Steven King’s epic tale about the clash of good and evil in a post-Superflu America and probably my favorite novel from him. However, where King paints in technicolor and bold, obvious contrasts, Mandel prefers shades and subdued drama. The tone is similar to the slow depressing grind of Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road” but nowhere near as disturbing and bereft of hope. Mandel’s apocalypse is oddly mellow considering how much of the population dies in the first few pages. One final comparison I might draw is one between this novel and the graphic novel The Watchmen by Alan Moore. Like Watchmen, the existence of a side-text, the privately published comic book “Station Eleven” and “Doctor Eleven,” forms an odd counterpoint to the rest of the narrative. Also similar to that text, the scattershot nature of the narrative, where each character has such an equal share of the story. It’s hard, meaningless even, to describe one or another as ‘being the main character.’ Mandel gives us multiple points of entry into her story, producing many loose threads that only slowly cohere. I doubt Mandel would subscribe to the notion that, “everything happens for a reason,” but she does seem intent on describing why the world exists the way it does, how somethings survive and others disappear.

Mandel recently gave an interview for NPR, which I immediately thought highly appropriate. Station Eleven feels like the sort of science fiction that a NPR host could get behind. It’s hard not to hear Ira Glass’ voice in the hyper-aware sentence fragments and in the way Mandel's literate, slightly elegiac tone comes across as less the thing itself than a report of the thing. Although we learn that the remaining humans after the collapse suffer unbelievable trauma during the chaotic and blood-splattered years following the Georgia Flu, we don’t really see much of this. Kirsten, for example, simply doesn’t remember anything that happened for a year after the collapse. This gives the story a certain bloodless journalistic quality, as though the descriptions of the atrocities carries a parental advisory.

Is that too harsh? I actually found myself enjoying this book a great deal and the multi-faceted, sober approach to the material was refreshing after reading other post-apocalyptic novels. Certain sections, like the slow slide into a new society described by Clark as he waited for rescue trapped in a fly-over regional airport were positively riveting. But don’t enter into this novel under mistaken pretense. The tagline painted onto the lead caravan of the Traveling Symphony is “Survival is insufficient,” and that pretty much sums up the spirit of this novel - not a document of struggle and adversity and trauma but rather an accounting of the things that remain after such events. Even as much is lost, Mandel suggests what remains becomes just as precious, that there is no amount of ephemera that can’t serve some purpose. That forgetting is what kills people, not the actual dying.
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