Station Eleven (2014)
Emily St. John Mandel (1979)
It can happen that a novel seems to fall clearly into a particular genre, and yet that one finds that classification insufficient and even misleading. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, left me with just such an impression. Unquestionably the novel is post-apocalyptic fiction; stating that, however, may be doing this enchanting novel a great disservice. For although fans of that genre will certainly enjoy this work, even if you normally shy away from such books you should give this one a go: you will love it for the remarkable story St. John Mandel tells.
While many end-of-the-world novels key in on the action-adventure aspect of the catastrophe and can certainly make for thrilling reads, the most engaging and affecting novels in this genre turn their focus onto the human reactions prompted by living in a radically changed world; so, for example: the gradual, agonizing realization that the end of mankind has become inevitable in the aftermath of a nuclear world war in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach; the long, painful and slow recovery from another such war that the characters struggle through in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and the unnamed catastrophe that has left a man and his son wandering through a desolate world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Like these and other compelling novels in this category, St. John Mandel allows the mechanics of the apocalypse to play out mostly in the background; her story instead follows the struggle of the survivors to come to grips with life in its aftermath, and looks back to the time before the disaster strikes to moments that reverberate forward into the post-apocalyptic future.
The story opens during a staging of King Lear in Toronto, at which Arthur Leander, a famous actor playing Lear, suffers a heart-attack. An audience member, Jeevan Chaudhary, jumps onto the stage to try to revive him, as a young girl, Kirsten Raymonde, watches the commotion from a nearby corner. A child with a minor role in the play, Kirsten had been befriended by Arthur during the long weeks of rehearsals, often escaping the commotion of the show preparations by visiting his dressing room to play alone as he readied himself to go on-stage. Despite all the efforts to save Arthur, he ends up dying --- but we quickly learn that within days everyone in the theater that night save Jeevan and Kirsten will soon be dead as well. A highly contagious, and very deadly and fast-moving flu has skipped beyond its hazy origins in the Republic of Georgia, and begun spreading like a wildfire across the earth, arriving in particular by plane that day into Toronto. As King Lear plays out in the theater, hospital staff in the city find themselves overwhelmed, though the general population remains largely unaware of the danger, if only for a few hours more.
The story jumps quickly forward to the Year 20 after the flu, and we meet a group of itinerant musicians and actors, including Kirsten, who call themselves the Traveling Symphony. We gradually learn that within just a few weeks of that fateful night in Toronto the flu killed off some 99% of the population, with many others losing their lives in the chaotic aftermath; survivors carry on in a world that has suddenly gone dark and empty. Through this radically changed world the Traveling Symphony follows the shores of the lower Great Lakes, stopping to play music and perform Shakespeare at small settlements that have sprung up in clusters of buildings.
When not practicing or performing, the members of the company have a lot of time on their hands and, not surprisingly, their thoughts and discussions often drift back to the time before the flu, and the difficult years that have followed in its wake. Kirsten in particular spends much of her time trying to piece together the mystery of her past; too young to have more than hazy memories of the time before the epidemic, or the first violent period after it, she builds her efforts to remember around a few objects from that time that she carries in her backpack, but whose origin and meaning she cannot quite recall. She does know, however, that they are somehow associated with Arthur Leander, and when searching empty houses for goods the group can use, she keeps an eye out for information on the famous actor in magazines or books, that might reveal the background of these talismans she carries. St. John Mandel builds her story around Kirsten’s struggle to build a clearer picture of her past, and on the people who in part shaped it, whose lives in the time before the flu provide the clues that inform the reader of what has been hopelessly lost for Kirsten in the ashes of the pandemic.
The Traveling Symphony retraces each year a route along the lakes that they are familiar with, avoiding the rumored violence of interior lands farther from the lake shores, though they find that even communities they visit regularly on their travels can undergo dramatic and sometimes dangerous change. Just such a transformation has occurred in a town they visit early in the story, and the effects of this encounter propel the theater group off their normal route into unfamiliar territory; it also eventually leads Kirsten to uncover further links to her past.
The story does not proceed linearly, however; instead St. John Mandel moves fluidly from the events of Year 20 back and forth through her characters’ pasts, telling their back stories in the years leading up to the outbreak, and, for those who survived, from the years after the pandemic has struck. She shifts deftly between different periods of her characters’ lives, revealing decisions and actions that in reflection they themselves would undoubtedly have most likely considered unimportant and even arbitrary, but that ultimately reveal lives linked together by just such accidental, unintentional choices. What could have quite easily become a confusing mishmash --- crisscrossing time and place --- unfolds here seamlessly. St. John Mandel’s light touch captivates as she reveals mysterious and uncertain connections, and then slowly, deliberately, unveils the history behind them.
As I continued deeper into this novel, St. John Mandel’s approach left me with a feeling that I don’t recall having experienced in my previous reading: even when I had nearly finished the book, I still had the odd feeling that I was reading the opening act --- the character set-up that tends to occur early in the plot of a story. That feeling even persisted through what was the obvious climax scene. What became clear was that the dangerous moment of the climax, or even the earlier devastation of the flu itself, were not the point of the story. Instead, the crux of the novel lies in the mixture of coincidental and intentional actions that had a significant impact on Kirsten but that occurred in a history whose details were largely lost to the devastation of the flu, and in the attempt by Kirsten to piece together what she can of her hazy past and so create a cohesive understanding of it for herself.
Station Eleven, then, deals not just with the struggle to live in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event; this wonderful, engaging tale looks beyond that simple theme, delving into the difficulty of the survivors to make sense of their place in an altered world, based on their own uncertain memories and the physical artifacts that remain. The story reveals too how the smallest of actions in the world before the pandemic could sometimes create what feel like great mysteries for the survivors, mysteries they generally find difficult to unravel as they look back to the time before Year 0. This struggle plays out differently for each of them of course: some were adults when the flu spread and remember everything that came before, though it begins to take on the aspect of a mirage; others, like Kirsten, were only children when the disease struck and have only vague memories of the earlier world; and then there are the very young, who know only the stories they hear from their elders, and the rusting and broken down world around them. For each of them their own particular understanding of the past colors their view of the present, and their hopes for the future.
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