I’ve mentioned before that it is a rare book nowadays that rivets my attention. As a reader I am old and jaded, and when I look at much of what is being published nowadays I have a sense that I have seen it before. Not many books crack my sense of ennui.
Station Eleven managed the feat. Its story kept me going to the very end. It is a pleasant surprise.
The book’s central premise is that, sometime in the near future, humanity is very nearly wiped out by a new, extremely lethal strain of influenza (the “Georgian flu”). In a matter of weeks global civilization collapses, leaving scattered survivors– those lucky enough to dodge being exposed to the flu, and the very, very few who are naturally immune– struggling to survive.
In most hands this sort of premise would have been given an epic treatment, with scientists and politicians and military men figuring prominently in the story, struggling against the disease in widely scattered locations around the world. This is more-or-less the approach of the movie Contagion, a film I personally enjoyed. In general, calling something epic gets my attention.
Station Eleven, in contrast, completely abstains from an epic approach. Instead, Mandel creates an intimate portrait of the end of the world, and she makes it work. The book starts with the death of Arthur Leander, a middle-aged film star who drops dead in the middle of a production of King Lear in Toronto, on the very night the influenza arrives in the city. The story then moves back and forth in time, describing the lives of several characters, before and after the flu, whose stories are intertwined around Leander and which continue to collide even after his death and the end of civilization. One such character is Kirsten, a young woman who was a child actress in the production of Lear in which Leander died. Twenty years in the future she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a peripatetic band of musicians and actors who travel between the scattered settlements of survivors in what was once the state of Michigan, giving performances. It’s a changed world, but Beethoven and Shakespeare, not surprisingly, remain relevant.
Even with the small scale, and the shifts back and forth in time and from character to character, Mandel creates an utterly believable post-apocalyptic world. There are almost no false notes here, no over-the-top heroics, no blood-drenched battles, no easy answers to the horrors people go through. About the only complaints I have are that one piece of climactic business is resolved by what appears to be a deus ex machina, and there are parts of Arthur Leander’s story I could have done without. Aside from those quibbles, however, the story flows smoothly and leaves the reader with a sense of verisimilitude– this is what the collapse of civilization would look like, from the inside.
Mandel also brings a fresh perspective to post-apocalyptic story-telling, focusing on the importance of art, even after the collapse of society. Aside from the Traveling Symphony itself, copies of a science-fiction graphic novel, Station Eleven, created by Leander’s first wife, serve as a thread that connects many of the characters over time, often in unexpected ways. The comic is so loving described in the story that I find myself wishing I could buy a copy. The ultimate point Mandel is trying to make about art among the ruins is summed up by a quote from Star Trek: Voyager— “Survival is insufficient”– an axiom that contains within itself the seed of rebirth for human society. As a theme it is powerful and resonant.
I recommend Station Eleven highly– and I hope someone is working on a movie. I think it would work on the screen, although it lacks the sort of suspension-of-disbelief-straining action movie-makers, and audiences, seem to demand nowadays.
More about that in a future post. For the time being, go get the book. You won’t regret it.