Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Dystopia, Post-Apocalypse
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday (September 9, 2014)
Tiara’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
An actor’s death while performing the eponymous role in King Lear heralds the end of an age, ushering in a new one with a roar. No one expected the Georgia Flu–romantic in name, but deadly in scope–to sweep the globe as quickly and as brutally as it did.
Twenty years later, society has collapsed completely and now, there are only pockets of communities, families, and survivors inhabiting the world. Amenities such as the internet are considered thrilling tales for children twenty and under who now live during a time when old cars are stripped and turned into horse-led caravans. As one passage that details an incomplete list of things that are “no more” states:
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.
However, this isn’t just a story about life post-civilization. This story follows a cast of players all connected by the actor, Arthur Leander, people whose lives he touched in profound ways. Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparazzo turned EMS, who encountered Arthur during many critical moments in his life as a paparazzi photographer and again as an EMS. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress who witnessed Arthur’s death and develops a fascination for him in the post-flu world as she roams with a traveling symphony intent on keeping performing art in the world. Clark, his college friend who worked in organizational psychology “fixing” people by making them into the idea employee their companies want them to be but finds a different calling after the Georgia Flu. Finally, there is Miranda, his first wife, an artist who worked in shipping by day, but slowly, secretly penned her magnum opus for many years–a science fiction graphic novel called Station Eleven, which is gifted to Kirsten as a child by Arthur, a book Kirsten still has in her possession twenty years later.
This story travels back and forth in time, revealing the tenuous strings that tie them together, documenting the world for what it once was and what it has now become since 99% of the population has been decimated thanks to the flu. The world is a starker place than before the collapse. There are no countries or states, and the post-flu generation doesn’t even really have a working knowledge of such concepts. Kirsten comments that they’re just now entering “softer” years than when the illness first ravished the world. She remembers people being distrustful and territorial to the point of immediate violence when she first started traveling with the symphony but now, people are starting to slowly trust one another again, or at least give people the opportunity to explain themselves when showing up unannounced.
While one doesn’t tend to think of stories about a world ravaged by illness as lyrical, Mandel’s writing gave this world a strikingly tragic, dreamy feel that juxtaposes beauty and ugliness, sometimes having both characteristics present in the same sequence:
What was lost in the collaspe: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheekbone half-erased by candlelight. The audience is silent. Sayid, circling her in a tuxedo that Kirsten found in a dead man’s closet near the town of East Jordan: “Tarry, rash wanton. Am I not thy lord?”
Miranda’s graphic novel played an essential part in this aside from giving the novel its name. It served as a haunting allegory for feelings, situations, and dreams throughout the story, giving us such moments as these where her story underscores her pent up feelings about being the eccentric wife who never truly belonged in Hollywood (but has dual meaning when put up for comparison to the post-flu world):
The sentiment seems right, but somehow not for this image. A new image to go before this one, a close-up of a note left on Captain Lonagan’s body by an Undersea assassin: “We were not meant for this world. Let us go home.”
In the next image, Dr. Eleven holds the note in his hand as he stands on the outcropping of rock, the little dog by his boots. His thoughts:
The first sentence of the assassin’s note rang true: we were not meant for this world. I returned to my city, to my shattered life and damaged home, to my loneliness, and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.
Too long, also melodramatic. She erases it, and writes in soft pencil: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.
There was one issue that I felt could’ve been improved upon, mostly because it only kept popping up at convenient times when it felt Mandel needed things to move, but she couldn’t quite figure out how to get them to move. I felt the idea needed to either have been explored more or taken out altogether. It was one of those instances where it kept popping up at points, and I’d forgotten that was even part of the story because it only felt important in that moment. I won’t spoil it since it is important to the plot, but it was just one small complaint. And it’s an issue that other readers have pointed out as well.
Another thing that I don’t know if I think is brilliant or not is the Prophet. You know there is always at least one person who turns into the religious zealot in a post-apocalyptic setting. On one hand, I did like what she eventually did with that angle, even though at first I was thinking, “Please, not this.” On the other hand, I couldn’t fully appreciate it as much as I wanted because the entirety of it seemed to be all crammed in toward the end rather than being slowly revealed like most of the story. You have a good idea where it’s going to go with that angle, but it just seemed a bit more shoehorned in when compared to the rest of the story.
It would be easy to categorize this book as just a dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel, but it’s so much more than that. It’s one of those books that defies genre, and I’m sure it’s probably been the source of more than one great genre debate by now. Despite any ambiguity it lends, this novel is poetic, elegiac, and moving. Station Eleven has the quality of a book that could be considered a classic years from now, something that my kids will likely dig up when they decide to go on a classics binge (much like I’m doing right now with various genres). It’s a terrific blend of prose, character, and dialogue.