Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
In the midst of this bleak, gray winter wasteland, I decided to read…a novel set in the post-apocalypse. Am I a masochist? Possibly, but hear me out. Was this a relentlessly bleak and depressing reading experience? Actually, not at all.
Station Eleven, the debut novel by Emily St. John Mandel that was a National Book Award finalist, seemingly does the impossible: it’s a beautiful, plausibly-rendered and yes, uplifting novel about the end of life as we know it due to a flu pandemic. But this novel is also about relationships, acting and theater, celebrity and the specter of fame…you know, our everyday concerns in our mundane, pre-apocalyptic world.
In the novel’s opening scene, we meet Arthur, a famous actor currently appearing onstage in Toronto in a production of King Lear. Suddenly, Arthur collapses onstage, suffering a heart attack. An audience member hurries onstage to administer CPR, but it’s too late – Arthur has died. Coincidentally, that same night, a Russian plane carrying passengers infected with a deadly flu virus lands in North America. Soon, 99% of the theater-goers in Toronto and the rest of the world that night will have something in common with Arthur – they’ll be dead.
Station Eleven is about various people connected to Arthur in the years before and after the flu pandemic. The audience member who lept to Arthur’s rescue is Jeevan, an ex-paparazzo-turned-EMT who shares a history with Arthur. He manages to barricade himself in an apartment after being warned by a friend. Kirsten, a child actress onstage with Arthur in the King Lear production, also manages to survive. Twenty years later, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic theater troupe traveling landscape that has been drastically altered by the flu pandemic.
The novel jumps back and forth in time, and I appreciated this framing device. Large portions of the book focus on Arthur’s life, his prior marriages, how he became interested in acting. Woven in with those portions is the story of Kirsten’s life with the Traveling Symphony, and the challenges presented to them. It was almost like reading two different books, except that Mandel kept enough threads running between the two different worlds that it worked beautifully. And, I found it realistic – after all, if a flu were to befall us next month, that does not mean celebrity gossip, social media, and all the petty things that sustain us day-to-day never existed. Mandel does an excellent job bridging those two worlds.
One of the things that I found most refreshing about Station Eleven is its lack of judgement regarding the flu pandemic and the collapse of society. Mandel does not spend her time dwelling on what society may have done to cause the pandemic, how it may have been prevented, etc. The flu–and subsequent wipeout of 99% of humanity world-wide–simply happens, and the lives of a few people are examined decades after, and decades before, this event.
Fans of dystopian, post-apocalyptic and futuristic fiction will undoubtedly enjoy Mandel’s debut, but even if this type of fiction is not your usual thing, check this one out. Mandel has created a world that is at once chilling, hopeful, and above all, recognizable.