Imagine a deadly lightning-fast virus that decimates 99% of the world’s population without warning. Imagine surviving such a cataclysmic event and having to adjust to a world nothing like anyone has ever known. Flung back in time, before electricity and planes and antibiotics and the internet. Except, this is nothing like time travel. Not when many of the survivors remember exactly what it was like. Remember everyone they lost. Remember the world before the end of civilisation as we all know it.
The story begins dramatically, literally and thematically. In Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, during a performance of King Lear, aging Hollywood actor Arthur Leander collapses and succumbs to a heart-attack even as an audience member jumps up on the stage to perform CPR. Later the same audience member, Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparrazo-turned-entertainment-journalist studying to be a paramedic, sits with the youngest cast member, an eight-year-old girl, Kirsten Raymonde, as Arthur’s body is wheeled away in the midst of the fake snow that continues to fall on the stage.
Unknown to any of them, the virus, known simply as the Georgia Flu has already been brought to America by patient zeros. The world we know has already begun to dissolve. It’s fitting that the opening scene is Arthur’s death, because even though we don’t really get a flashback from his POV for most of the book, he is the character that connects everyone else that this narrative follows, whether two out of his three ex-wives, a grown-up Kirsten, Jeevan (whose name incidentally translates to “life”) or Arthur’s best friend, Clark Thompson.
The After that Mandel focuses on is twenty years following the outbreak. Kirsten is now part of the Travelling Symphony, a motley group that goes from settlement to settlement in this new world performing Shakespeare, a fragment of the “best of the old world”. Their unexpected run-in with a self-titled prophet sets off a series of events that none can predict.
Choosing to focus on a time when things have settled down instead of setting a story in the aftermath allows Mandel to write about the “how” without the “why”, without the done-to-death apocalyptic narrative of gore, violence, and destruction. It makes for a quieter, more contemplative work, but this is what sets Station Eleven apart, in my mind, to the other novels in this genre.
“Mayhem is not a terribly sustainable way of life. It seemed at least plausible to me that there would eventually be some kind of hope.” (Emily St. John Mandel on NPR in response to why a troupe of actors and why 20 years later)
We never get any answers about the virus and its purpose. This is a story about how to move on from something so devastating, when you’re one of very few left standing. This is a story about what survives when the world ends. Even if it’s a few copies of a self-published comic book. (Station Eleven derives its name from a series of graphic novels created by a character in the book. A story that will increasingly mirror the new world and not only form a bridge between the two, but between its people.)
“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.”
There’s a clear Before and After and Mandel uses it to great effect in the narrative structure, feeding us snippets of multiple POV backstory until, in the final third, it all comes together in a beautiful tapestry, this unashamed clockwork narrative where every character and action has a purpose in the larger design. The prophet’s place in this design felt a little cliche as did his connection to the rest of them, but it didn’t affect the story’s overall impact for me.
I enjoyed the mediations on the purpose and power of art, the nature of memory, loss, nostalgia, celebrity, community, the things worth preserving, worth living and dying for. I loved the Symphony’s motto of “Survival is insufficient” nicked from Star Trek. All of this was seamless in its assimilation into the main story.
Eerie and disconcerting in its contemplation of the fragility of the reality we take for granted, yet strangely comforting. Slow and meandering, yet a book that feels shorter than it is. This book is full of quiet moments that take your breath away; images and feelings that I know will linger on long after yesterday, when I turned the last page.
Station Eleven is an ambitious novel and it isn’t perfect, but through a combination of elegant prose, vivid imagery of the new and old worlds, a deft sense of narrative structure, and a sensitive portrayal of a cast of engaging – flawed, real, vulnerable, real – characters, Emily St. John Mandel has created an achingly beautiful and haunting paen to the endurance and resilience of humanity even in the face of utter desolation. This is a dystopian novel more hopeful than it has any right to be and I will always carry it with me.
“We travelled so far and your friendship meant everything. It was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid.”
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