Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
published by Alfred A. Knopf
Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 book, Station Eleven, continues with her theme of oddly broken families and solitary figures, but this is her first story set, at least in part, in a non-contemporary era. What happens to survivors of a global pandemic? This premise isn’t new, but Station Eleven‘s take is decidedly different, bleakly beautiful, and very personal.
Everything in the book radiates from one character – Arthur Leander, a renowned actor who dies on stage from a heart attack on the eve of the Georgia Flu pandemic. Leander, an earnest, talented, unfaithful man, has affected the lives of all of the major characters in this book – Kirsten Raymonde, who was a child actress in Leander’s final show, and the recipient of an odd but lasting gift; his ex-wife Miranda, a quiet, solitary artist; Jeevan, a former paparazzi-turned-paramedic who once stalked Arthur and Miranda, but who attempts to revive him during that final performance; and Clark, Arthur’s best friend, another survivor. But Arthur himself is not at the center of the book – his influence, friendships and infidelities are important, but Kirsten and the Symphony, a group of actors and musicians traveling through the not-quite-empty lands around Lake Michigan, take center stage.
With her parents dead from the flu, and her older brother following a few years later, Kirsten joins The Traveling Symphony, and journeys from makeshift village to village, entertaining with scavenged musical instruments and costumes. There are places they are afraid to go, new towns built around self-proclaimed prophets, and settlements that welcome the relief and distraction. A colony has grown up in an abandoned airport, living in the terminal and unusable aircraft – one plane sits on the runway, a tomb from the first days of the epidemic.
Station Eleven spans more than 40 years, from the beginning of Arthur Leander’s career through a 20-year period after the crisis. The story jumps between events in Toronto, before and during the crisis, to what was likely Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, some 15-20 years later. Unlike other post-apocalyptic stories, like The Passage (Justin Cronin), or The Last President (John Barnes), the world is fairly disorganized. In tone, it more resembles Cormac McCarthy’s classic The Road, or Anne Benson’s The Physician’s Tale (all of which I highly recommend, by the way).
But though the book is quiet, with little action (no zombies, or “infected” beings), the threat of the unknown, whether in the terrain or the mind, is strongly felt. There is seemingly little hope or organization in this new world, connections are rarely farther than the extended family, and you get the feeling that there’s not much work toward any kind of recovery, whether it’s social, technical or governmental; yet the individual still perseveres. Painted on the side of the Symphony’s caravan is the motto, “Survival is Insufficient” (from Star Trek Voyager, written by Ronald D. Moore), and it’s possible, by the end of the book, that mankind may be able do more than survive.