December 11th, 2014
Picture the moment before a pandemic–what might that look like–people in everyday situations going about their everyday lives. Some are at the theatre. Some are walking home from work. Some are on a plane going somewhere. Coming home from somewhere. Stuck somewhere. This is the premise that opens Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s captivating novel. In the instant before the world collapses, one man falls down on stage–a renown and infamous actor, Arthur Leander–dead from an apparent heart attack. A young man, training to be a paramedic, hops up on stage to try and save him. He can’t. A young girl in the production of King Lear with him is deeply, profoundly affected by not only his death, but her association with the play itself. An ex-wife a world away who hears the news, doesn’t quite know what to do with it. And what Mandel has done here, sits with me, profoundly–because she has paused on the very moments before a calamity, and allowed her characters to stew in an everyday tragedy. Here’s the mark, the one event that would have scarred your life had it gone on as it should; instead, it becomes the punctuation, an ellipsis, that melts into a much larger event–the end of the world, essentially. And that to me is some smart, smart storytelling.
The Georgian Flu, an extreme case of a type of avian flu, hits the world and within a few weeks 90% (or some crazy number, no one really knows exactly how many) of the world’s population is dead. And with any pandemic, the life that’s left behind is forever “after,” so much so that the years are recalibrated as “Year One,” “Year Two,” etc., after the worst has passed.
Many of the characters in Station Eleven are artists, the members of the Traveling Symphony that roam a mostly safe route to perform, as a troupe would have in the days theatre first evolved, from place to place, looking for an audience. They are storytellers, hunter-gatherers of culture, roaming their way across a civilization that has lost everything. For me, while the threat of other people was always ever-present, it never really approached Walking Dead territory, where every human being puts up a kill or be killed kind of fight. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic situation that I’m used to–there’s Shakespeare in this world. There’s Bach and a museum, and a thread of the “before” in ways that feel as if Mandel means to point out that art is important. That said, the world isn’t without its dangers, and when members of their troupe go missing after engaging with a particularly fanatical prophet, it becomes apparent that the skills of the road, the necessary parts of survival, are as bare and animalistic as one would imagine.
So there are survivors, and there are victims. There is magic and there is brutality. There is humanity and there is insanity in this new world post-flu. And overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book–I loved Arthur’s flawed character, and how, even in death, his presence haunts the entire book. I really liked the Traveling Symphony and their wandering band of actors and musicians. I even, truly, appreciated the ending of the novel, which I won’t spoil here for obvious reasons.
Still, I’ve been ruined by post-apocalyptic situations. Mainly, I’ve been ruined by Battlestar Galactica. I know. That might be the strangest sentence I’ve ever written in a book review before. But stay with me–here’s what I think. The nature of the attack on humanity was different, alien, in fact, and the humans were stranded on a small fleet of vehicles up in space–but they managed to keep civilization somewhat in tact because there was government. And that’s, I know, not Mandel’s point–she’s more focused on individuals, and not what a country would do, but that’s where the book fell down for me, ever-so slightly. That in all the years, and all of the small civilizations that would have sprung up, there would have been some effort to at least locate survivors of government, to keep something at least barely organized, in communication–and that the whole world essentially stops around a band of what feels like to me, the least likely to survive, felt a bit contrived.
I’m probably not expressing myself clearly–so I’ll stop there. It’s a good book. Highly deserving of all its praise and accolades, and one I am so pleased I read this year, when reading has been more of a challenge for me than any other time in my life.