Book Review: Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, begins with the ending of one person, and an ending of sorts for a whole society—an imaginary scenario, but not completely outside of the realm of possibility in the real world. The book is a tale of a post-apocalyptic world that manages to weave in Shakespeare into the plot—a major bonus.
Onstage one night in a Toronto theater, while performing the title role in King Lear, 51-year-old Arthur Leander has a fatal heart attack. While this event is a shock to the theater world, a bigger shock is coming in the form of a major pandemic, the Georgia Flu, which has arrived via airplane from Eastern Europe and decimates Toronto (and the world) in days. One of the theater patrons, Jeevan, stays to help with the medical emergency, while his girlfriend leaves him to go home (he will never see her again—the fleeting moments of fate in this novel are powerful). He gets a heads up about the flu from a doctor friend who is treating the infected foreigners, so he has time to stock up on supplies for himself and his disabled brother, and they remain quarantined for weeks. But eventually Jeevan must venture out, but without his brother, who cannot survive in this new world without transportation and would rather die in comfort.
While Jeevan is out buying survival supplies, colleagues at the theater gather to raise a glass in Arthur’s honor. In this passage comes a hint of dread: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
One of the other people on the scene on the night of Arthur’s death is Kirsten Raymonde, an 8-year-old actress playing one of Lear’s daughters. Kirsten is the heroine and protagonist of the novel, and, following some details about the spread of the flu, 20 years have passed when we meet her again and there is no more Toronto, nor Canada, nor United States—all borders are extinct and very little of the population and the comforts of the old world remain. Kirsten is now part of a theater troupe called the Traveling Symphony, whose musicians and actors perform Shakespeare for small communities around the Great Lakes (a nice connection for us Michiganders). Her parents did not survive—most people didn’t—so this is her new family, and has been for years. They come upon abandoned towns where squatters/survivors dwell, and they scavenge and entertain, and then move on and repeat the process in the next community. Why, when they don’t have electricity or plentiful food and water, do they still care about music and Shakespeare? The caravan they travel with is painted with this slogan that says it all (a nod to Star Trek): “Because survival is insufficient.” This family is not without tragedy—they encounter crazy offspring and a prophet who has risen after the fall of society—but Kirsten, who seems to represent hope and perseverance, is the novel’s “savior” figure. She keeps Arthur’s memory alive by collecting old clippings about him (he was a renowned Hollywood actor before his final performance) she finds along the way.
The troupe has heard about other outposts, and are even searching for former members, who they expect to find at the largest outpost: the airport. Those who were stranded at the airport (and some newcomers, who are not all invited to stay) have developed a mini-society. They make the decision not to venture out, and for a while, they have some comforts. But 20 years later, they have carved out a safe, if boring, micro-society, with rules, that survives on old newspapers and books and the deer they hunt for food.
The story starts with the Georgia Flu, and then weaves back and forth between the backstories of Arthur and his fascinating life (and his ex-wives, one of whom is the creator of a comic that is also woven into the plot in a captivating way), Kirsten and her troupe, and the airport society—all of which are connected in ways that will not be spoiled here. The book is well-plotted, artistic, heartbreaking, and bold. Some people (like me) might be bothered by questions like why no one got the electricity back on in 20 years, but those thoughts are minor. The reader is left with the feeling that society and art will prevail: it may not be the same, but it is not easily destroyed, even after 99% of the world’s population is snuffed out by a mysterious pandemic.
One of the cool things the author does is to provide us with a litany of things we take for granted in our “civilized” society, but that no longer exist after the flu—does anyone ever think of these things? What else can we add to this list? It’s something to think about.
“An incomplete list:
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. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by.
No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take pictures of concert states. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars. No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.
No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position – but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Teenagers snuck into them to have sex. Rust blossomed and streaked. No more countries, all borders unmanned.
No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space.
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
― Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven