Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven (2014)
Emily St. John Mandel (1979)

333 pages

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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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Book Review: "The First Bad Man" by Miranda July

The First Bad Man (2015)
Miranda July (1974)

276 pages

Authors often seem to establish a certain tone and intensity early on in their novels that they then, aside from some quickening around the climax, maintain through to the end. Not so Miranda July in her book The First Bad Man. What begins as a rather riotous character study explodes suddenly into an erotic duel before taking a vertiginous drop into adulthood. The one constant is a comedic backbeat that both softens the edges of a cast of quite odd characters, but also serves to make them feel more real.

As the story opens, Cheryl Glickman is headed to an appointment with a doctor recommended by a colleague at work; the doctor is only in town a few times a year, and Cheryl has made the appointment principally in the hopes of meeting her colleague in the doctor’s waiting room, and so establishing a connection with him outside of work. Convinced that he will be there when she enters, she approaches the office door practicing the conversation she will have with him, so that it will come off with just the right level of nonchalant surprise. Her preparations are for not, however, as she finds only a receptionist present when she opens the door to the waiting room.

This opening scene serves as a fitting introduction to our narrator, and her method of coping with the struggles and disappointments in her life by experiencing much of her interaction with others deep inside her own imagination. The illusion of control and rationality that this allows her may make the world a less scary place for her, but proves an unstable foundation as, not surprisingly, real people and situations continuously veer off the scripted path she has laid out, forcing her to react to things she had not anticipated and so feels supremely unprepared for.

Cheryl most perfectly realizes her desire for control when at home. Living alone, she has developed a carefully structured set of behaviors that individually can seem not quite unreasonable when she describes them, but together form a picture of a compulsive, obsessive personality. She has, for example, packed away all of her dishes except for one set, so that she never ends up with a sink full of dirty dishes; and, like a fuel-conscious driver, she optimizes tasks in such a way as to maximize the efficiency of each trip through her house. She has a system in place at home, and she sticks to it.

This constant struggle for control has its consequences, however: Cheryl suffers from a psychosomatic illness, globus hystericus, the feeling of a lump in the throat which obstructs swallowing, though no actual lump is present. Cheryl experiences this to various degrees whenever she feels overwhelmed and unable to maintain her desperately tight grip on her life and surroundings.

Cheryl’s ordered, if fragile, world comes crashing down when she reluctantly agrees to take in Clee, the 20 year old daughter of the couple who own the business where she works. Monosyllabic, messy and self-absorbed, Clee quickly turns Cheryl’s carefully constructed life upside down. As Clee ignores or maliciously violates the cleanliness and order of the house, Cheryl descends into a case of globus hystericus that leaves her barely able to drink even water.

Eventually things come to a head and Cheryl strikes out in frustration, physically attacking Clee. She loses the battle to the much younger and stronger woman, but to Cheryl’s surprise, the scrum does temporarily resolve her globus hystericus; it also unleashes unexpected feelings between the women. As the mercurial and ill-defined relationship between the two develops --- with its own peculiar and very physical rules of attraction --- Cheryl must balance her natural tendencies for control and structure in her life with the uncertainty and disorder that accompanies these new feelings. When Clee then reveals news that completely redefines the relationship between the women, Cheryl must confront the comfortable world she had created in her imagination, and decide whether to let that it go for a new and radically different life.

Many scenes and passages in the story had me laughing to myself as July’s cast of oddballs reveal their neuroses and blind-spots. But her humor does not come across as malicious. When we laugh at what a character says or does it is accompanied by some portion of sympathy that comes from recognizing through them the parts of ourselves that we try so hard to hide --- our own neuroses and blind-spots. Thus we can engage with the characters in the novel, instead of simply laughing at their flaws.

It must be mentioned that anyone squeamish about reading sex scenes may be put-off by this book. Though the scenes mostly play out in Cheryl’s imagination, or are reported to her after the fact, they encompass a fairly wide range of rather explicitly described activities, and so are not for the every reader. Some are actually more unsettling than erotic, and others so over-the-top as to be more humorous than erotic, but July doesn’t hide behind implication or flowery language in these scenes.

Hopefully that warning won’t scare you off of The First Bad Man, however, because it is an affecting read. What begins as a fairly innocent comedy evolves into a rowdy, over-the-top love story in the middle third, a careening ride of confused passions. In the final third July executes a dramatic shift that, like a rider on a roller coaster dropping into a free fall, provides a precipitous drop into new emotional struggles that had me glued to the page to find out how things would be resolved.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf