My reading list of the previous eighteen months has consisted largely of classics. The books by renowned authors, the entries that feature in every to-read-before-you-die list, and as such I’ve managed to avoid picking up too many duds. But this has lead to me falling behind on what is good now. Books that took 2015 by storm, The Martian, A Brief History of Seven Killings and Go Set A Watchmen, to name a few, which all remain on the list. But one book that piqued my interest, and was subsequently fast tracked, was a book written in 2014; Station Eleven, by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel.
Station Eleven describes an apocalypse where a strain of flu (from Georgia of all places) wipes out the majority of mankind and cripples civilisation. Yet I’d struggle to define its genre as science-fiction, or post-apocalyptic – these both fall short. It’s a tale of human survival on a deeply personal scale, focussing on a core group of characters that are loosely linked with narratives before and after the epidemic. All written elegantly by Mandel in her understated way.
When Arthur Leander, famous actor and at 51 playing the role of a lifetime as the titular King Lear, dies on stage along with his lifelong faults and regrets, his death is overshadowed by a flu epidemic, a modern plague that plunges civilisation into darkness, hunger and fear. Leander’s death is witnessed by those in the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, and a young girl on stage, aged eight, who watches the paramedics struggle in vain to save him. Unknown, humanity stands on the brink.
No more countries, all borders unmanned.
No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space.
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.
Twenty years later, that young girl on stage in Toronto is now 28; her name is Kirsten Raymonde and even in this shattered world she continues to perform, is a member of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians that are devoted to traversing through settlements performing Shakespearean plays and live music with tattered and scavenged instruments. The world is as you might expect; without electricity, humanity scattered and dirty, adapting and surviving, all progress halted when the focus turns to staying alive.
All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.
The book has a very human feel to it, a tenderness that runs to its very core. Its, and the Travelling Symphony’s, devotion to the arts in the apocalypse of all places is a refreshing aspect and the Symphony’s mantra, Survival is Insufficient, is relevant and understandable. And while this world does not seem as dangerous and bleak as other post-apocalyptic tales (The Road, I’m looking at you) I like to think it’s the hope and good that most of these survivors need to possess, and their determination to not only survive, but bring the elegance and the arts, so difficult (impossible) to maintain in the early years but that the Symphony strive for, live for. But it also results in the threat of the (somewhat generic) religious prophet as the ‘bad guy’ never seeming that strong or dangerous. Whats more the origins of the prophet felt a little forced and all rather convenient.
“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance”.
Where Station Eleven shines brightest, for me, are the alternating periods of time, before and after the outbreak of flu that stopped civilisation in its tracks. In particular, Leander’s ex-wife Miranda and her self-illustrated and eventually self-published graphic novel, the titular Station Eleven. I’ve spoken about my fascination with the premise of a book-within-a-book before when I posted my thoughts of The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and there are parallels with the post-Georgia flu world and Miranda’s Station Eleven comic book which propelled (but never quite satisfied) my interest.
Despite Arthur Leander’s death at the very beginning of the novel, he shares the protagonist mantel with Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor in King Lear on stage when Arthur dies. And there are several connections between the central characters. Jeevan Chaudhary, a former papparazzo (who lurks outside Leander’s house) turned entertainment journalist (whom Leander takes a shine to during a one-to-one interview) turned trainee paramedic (who is the first on stage to assist Leander when he dies of a heart attack on stage in Toronto). Miranda Caroll, Arthur’s first wife who is obsessed with creating Station Eleven, with Doctor Eleven and his dog Luli on a planet shaped space station, refugees from their home on Earth, and in which Miranda draws several inspirations from her real life troubles with Arthur and his celebrity lifestyle, which are indirectly relayed to Arthur himself years later when Miranda finally finishes the project in the months leading up to the plague. Clark Thompson, Arthur’s best friend, who advises and consults professionals while sleep-walking through life, and sees the development of Arthur’s son Tyler (from his second wife Elizabeth) from troubled boy into deranged religious prophet.
Perspectives shifting back and forth in a story is by no means new, and at first I wasn’t sure on Mandel’s reasoning for it, on her choice to tell the story in such a way. But the book grew on me, and while it has its slower moments (a section towards the end of the novel detailing Clark’s experiences in Severn Airport while the outbreak spread was…tedious, especially after the book had begun to gain momentum), it has far more touching moments, beautiful moments, moments that come out of left field and make a page far more memorable than you might have expected; and to finish, one such example, on how to sleepwalk through your life.
Okay, say you go into the break room, and a couple people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word. You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”