Review: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. The Travelling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they’d been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.

By then most people had settled somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three, and you can’t keep walking forever. After six months of travelling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop—the conductor’s orchestra had run into Gil’s company of Shakespearean actors, who had all escaped from Chicago together and then worked on a farm for a few years and had been on the road for three months, and they’d combined their operations.

Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, travelling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine. They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again. This territory was for the most part tranquil now. They encountered other travellers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns. The Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said. He himself found it difficult to live in the present. He’d played in a punk band in college and longed for the sound of an electric guitar.

***

One winter’s night, Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor performing King Lear on-stage in Toronto, dies of a heart attack mid-show. That same night, a plane from Moscow lands at Pearson carrying what can only be described as an entire cabin of patient zeros—men, women, and children all sick with a new, vicious, unbeatable strain of the swine flu known as the Georgia Flu. How deadly is it? Forty-eight hours—that’s how long before you die (oh, and you will die—the mortality rate of those affected by the Georgia Flu is 100 percent).

Present at Arthur’s final performance were Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparrazo now working as an EMT, who tried unsuccessfully to save the dying actor; and a young actress named Kirsten Raymonde whom Arthur had befriended in the days leading up to his death. By the time Jeevan arrives that night at his brother Frank’s apartment, following Arthur’s untimely demise, the Georgia Flu had already begun to spread, kicking off an apocalypse of sorts that would go on to (quickly) decimate the human race.

Picking up again twenty years after the collapse of western civilization, Kirsten is now part of a caravan known as the Travelling Symphony, equal parts an entertainment and survival troupe. They move from town to town, performing Shakespeare and other musical and performance-based selections for what remains of the population of North America. The members of the caravan are skilled hunters, reliant as much on their wits and their artistic abilities as their capacity to kill in order to survive.

Beyond the typical looting and anarchy that takes place in a world where borders between nations no longer exist, there are other problems the survivors of the Georgia Flu must contend with. Chief among them, for the purposes of this narrative, the Prophet—a mysterious young man who has managed to bend an entire town to his will. But the Prophet and Kirsten share an unlikely connection spawned, of all places, from one artist’s need to escape her reality—the world just prior to the collapse—through the creation of a comic book, the titular Station Eleven.

The narrative in Station Eleven trips across time—from months and years before the collapse, to zero hour and the years beyond. Using Arthur Leander’s death as a star around which the other characters orbit, the novel follows a wonderfully non-linear path, tracing several family histories at once, following their individual arcs and filling in the gaps along the way—showing how they’ve survived and in some cases thrived in the two decades since electricity, the Internet, and air travel went away, possibly for good.

At the end of several of these paths is the Museum of Civilization in Severn City—more accurately, in the Severn City airport, where many survivors hunkered down and rebuilt their lives following the events of that first night, when the world as they knew it ceased to be. The Museum of Civilization is a memorial for the past, housing odds and ends, trinkets and technologies devoid of purpose in the new world. Its existence brings to light questions not normally asked in similar apocalyptic narratives, like what happens to chemotherapy patients in a post-apocalyptic setting? Or people on antidepressants? On the airport tarmac, airplane tray tables have been erected as makeshift gravestones (bloody fantastic imagery). Residents of the Severn City airport reflect on the many ways they took their lives, and elements of their lives, for granted—their previous lack of patience, for example (typing “THX” instead of “Thanks” or “Thank you”).

In many ways, the Museum of Civilization is a reflection of the novel itself. Station Eleven presents a soft-spoken apocalypse, one that reads a little like a eulogy for a dead or dying world delivered to the reader as a travelogue. More often than not, the novel appears to take the road less travelled—there is violence, of course, and some of the more agreeable aspects of social conduct are jettisoned for an every-man-for-himself-style of lawlessness, which takes hold as small pocket societies form atop the remains of what came before. More than that, however, it’s a story of loneliness and silence. Of small realizations with dramatic outcomes, such as the knowledge that something so simple as stepping on a nail—a thing easily treated in the world prior to the collapse—will now almost certainly lead to a fatal infection.

Survival is clutch in Station Eleven, as one might expect, but survival isn’t always a 1:1 equation; it isn’t just about getting enough food to eat, or outfoxing potential marauders. It’s about reflecting on what was and finding ways to preserve pieces of art and culture, to carry ideas forward into… well, whatever comes next. This reflection is active within the narrative; the Travelling Symphony presents a melding of the two worlds—they’re a bridge between the artists of the past, and the survivalists and hunters of the future.

By using Arthur Leander’s death as the point around which all the narrative threads appear to rotate, author Emily St. John Mandel is afforded a multitude of opportunities to best explore this narrative of change: Arthur’s first wife, author and artist of the Station Eleven comic book; Clark, a friend of the deceased and the founder of the Museum of Civilization; the life of a social voyeur, as played in his early days by Jeevan the paparrazo; various actors, doctors, hunters, businessmen, and yes, even a self-styled prophet capitalizing on the end times.

Mandel’s vision of the future in Station Eleven is complete, from start to finish. Every thread, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, has weight and purpose to it, and is paid off through the narrative’s events. While treading on some very well worn ground, the novel manages to carve out a path all its own by focusing less on the survival aspects or the threats faced in an ungoverned, vastly depopulated world, and more on what was lost—scientifically, artistically, culturally—the night the Georgia Flu struck in earnest.

Despite the presence of death veining the narrative at every turn, Station Eleven remains unexpectedly beautiful and affirming throughout. This is apocalyptic lit done right—easily a single-sitting read. Highly recommended.

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