- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 9, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385353308
- ISBN-13: 978-0385353304
[Kirsten] Raymonde: … Look, I was eight. Nine, when we stopped walking. I can’t remember the year we spent on the road, and I think that means I can’t remember the worst of it. But my point is, doesn’t it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this – this current era, whatever you want to call it, the world after the Georgia flu – doesn’t it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?
Diallo: I hadn’t thought about it.
Raymonde: What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.
Summing up such a complex book in the space of a blog post, without notes and organized forethought, is daunting. But I have to push on and get my thoughts out before too much time passes, and I either don’t address it at all or forget too many details.
This is a complex tale with complex characters woven very tightly, though the full realization of their relationships comes about slowly, through the natural course of the story. Writers as accomplished as Joyce Carol Oates have admitted they have no idea how Mandel did this so seamlessly, appearing so effortless. Oates read it through twice and couldn’t unravel how it was done and she is an artistic genius in her own right. So, what does this make Emily St. John Mandel, creator of a work capable of baffling one of our greatest contemporary writers? An uber genius, or just a writer who managed a nearly impossible feat of artistry, either through the most intricate of planning, spinning gossamer threads into a cloth of unearthly beauty, or a series of unintended opportunities she chanced upon?
It’s impossible to imagine the author didn’t know what she was doing. A writer doesn’t just luck upon this degree of mastery. Or, if she does, I’m insanely jealous. And though it seems silly pronouncing a book to have reached artistic heights unrealized before, this book has achieved wondrous things. Yet, it’s not a book so complex readers should feel intimidated reading it. This is not difficult or obscure writing. It can be read as the riveting story it holds, or it can be analyzed ad nauseum in a literature course. It works well on both levels.
The plot hinges on an American actor, Arthur Leander, who has a heart attack and dies in the beginning of the book, during a performance of King Lear. The character Kirsten Raymonde, from the above quote, is a little girl acting the part of one of Lear’s daughters, in a clever side-stage vignette at the beginning of the play. Kirsten survives the flu, of course, thanks to an older brother whose resourcefulness kept the two of them alive long enough for her to meet up with others, who took her in.. She grows into a strong young woman, proficient in the art of killing by way of throwing knives with deadly accuracy. From an innocent, if a bit bratty, child actor she matures into a woman capable of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. As for Arthur, he leaves behind three ex-wives and one child, a son. It’s his first wife, Miranda, whose graphic artwork is the basis for the book’s title, artwork that will unite a few other characters, in just one of Mandel’s cleverly laid plans. And it all comes back around perfectly.
Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel; the premise is the world has been decimated by the “Georgia Flu” (as in former Soviet bloc, not the state of Georgia), a fast-moving deadly virus that kills within a couple of days. It hits the U.S. in California, through air travel and normal interaction between people, swiftly encompassing the country and the world before most people realize – or can bring themselves to believe – what is happening. The horrific part is this is precisely the sort of thing that could conceivably occur. Acts of terrorism will come but odds are, unless things go drastically wrong, it’s less possible carnage on the scale in Station Eleven would happen. Not impossible, because no one can claim to know the extent to which humans are capable of destroying each other, but less likely. What gets under the reader’s skin is this could, and someday likely will, happen here.
The way Mandel handles the ensuing chaos, following the realization most of the world’s population will be wiped out, leaves much to the imagination. It is handled gently, in some respects. Instead of describing grotesque images of death and decaying corpses, much of it is laid out within the story and not overly graphic. For that I was grateful. She creates horror, just in a less obvious way, which really does require a great amount of skill. Along the same lines, the violence is occasionally front and center but often occurs off-stage, as it were. There is enough to make the novel feel real and immediate but not so much your stomach is turned. She inserts just enough of each.
Panic ensues: fleeing people try to get out of cities, clogging the roadways. People grab rations, looting stores. Inevitably, things get to the point violence breaks out, as food and necessary rations become scarce or disappear. Shots ring out in cities; anarchy reigns. Odd groups of people come together. Religious cults form in reaction to the apocalyptic catastrophe. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel from town to town, dedicated to keeping the arts alive. Years crawl by, then decades, as civilization struggles to make sense of what happened and how to go forward.
Station Eleven‘s power lies not just in its structure or lyricism but also in its realism. I lost myself in the story, taking on feelings of visceral dread and hopelessness. I felt uncomfortable. The house quiet, the light fading, I tried to remind myself the world as we know it hadn’t ended but a part of me didn’t rebound so quickly. This being the 21st century, reassurance came via Twitter, all that scrolling mass of humanity reaching out to bring news headlines, links to cats behaving badly and really mundane statements about what’s for dinner. And it is silly it was the first place I turned, and this is an oddly connected disconnected world, but after reading Emily St. James Mandel’s book I found it all delightfully wonderful. It’s a weirdly, wildly wonderful world, the kind where we’re able to read amazing books and reach out to strangers and friends via social media.
Station Eleven makes you realize what we have, all that sustains us in the 21st century. In many ways we’re spoiled, having coming to rely on technology for so many things, and it’s not clear how we could survive a pandemic. Mandel presents one way in which human beings could get things back together, slowly. The road is long and difficult, but as long as we have people dedicated to preserving their area of expertise, sharing it with others, we’d have a chance. The novel ends on a promising note, not guaranteeing anything but giving the reader hope that, one day, the world will make it back.