Review: Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

 During the course of this novel, one of the characters makes a passing reference to an unrealistic book about a vampire-virus wiping out the entire of North America.  This was clearly aimed at Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a series I have enjoyed and whose next installment I anticipate eagerly.  Emily St John Mandel is clearly aware that notion of the apocalypse is one that has been explored, exploited and refashioned almost to the point of extinction (irony) – from The Hunger Games to The Day After Tomorrow to The Day of the Triffids, humanity has been destroyed and reborn in a myriad of different ways.  Yet this novel does have the feel of something new, it is very much acoustic to The Passage‘s electric rock, far more than a mere survival story, this is a vivid and thought-provoking depiction of a culture collapsed.

 The novel opens with the death of Arthur – fairly heavy symbolism already.  Arthur Leander is playing the titular role in King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto and he dies of a heart attack onstage while in the midst of the ‘mad’ scene, itself a fairly apocalypic vision of the world within the play.  Further symbolism.  Jeevan, an audience member, jumps up to attempt CPR.  Kirsten, an eight year-old girl playing the child version of Cordelia, watches from the wings.  Far away in separate locations, Arthur’s first wife Miranda, his long-term friend Clark hear the news and both of them are only vaguely aware of the growing panic around the outbreak of Georgia Flu, the virus which touches down in Toronto on the night of Arthur’s death.  Station Eleven cuts back and forth between the fall of civilisation and twenty years forward in the future; Mandel is not interested in the immediate messy aftermath of the fall, but rather in contrasting the world that was with the one sprung up to replace it.

I loved this book – it really felt like a story to savour.  There were few crash bang wallops and far more of pondering – if our world were to abruptly finish, what would we want to take with us, what would we want to remember – and what we would we far rather have forgotten?  The question of what is worth preserving is at the core of Station Eleven as the characters strive to make sense of this world in which they are the improbable survivors.  Characters reminisce about the things they took for granted, the children ask questions about a bygone world which exists only in relic form and in the stories of their elders – did the fridge light stay on even when the door was closed?  Did aeroplanes truly fly?  Could you really find the answer to every question somewhere on the Internet?

Kirsten Raymonde trudges across the United States as part of the Travelling Symphony, a nomadic theatre company which goes from town to town performing Shakespeare.  Yet just in case the reader thinks it pompous of Mandel to save Shakespeare from her Armageddon, on the side of the van which the company travels in are the words Survival is insufficient – a Star Trek quote.  Just like the people themselves, the nuggets of pop culture which have endured owe their survival to random twists of fate.  In Kirsten’s backpack there are the comic books which Arthur Leander handed her before his death, they feature the adventures of Station Eleven, a beautifully drawn cartoon vision of the apocalypse.  The Travelling Symphony learn that two of their number have journeyed to the Museum of Civilisation and so they set out to find it.

My favourite character was Clark, unexpectedly trapped in Severn City Airport as he battled to get to New York after Arthur’s death.  With the planes grounded, an unplanned community grew up of stranded travellers and airport staff.  So many people in Station Eleven find themselves separated from their families and loved ones by chance – caught unawares by the virus, there is no time to set one’s affairs in order.  Jeevan in Toronto and Clark in Severn City watch the news in stunned disbelief as one newsreader breaks script to tell his family that he loves them, as cameramen are forced to take over and then finally the channels sign off, one of them switching to reruns of America’s Got Talent before fading to black at last.  As apocalypse-narratives go, this one was the most grounded in realism that I can ever remember; I could imagine vividly how the meaningless talent displays would be a real relief after the days of unremitting panic, even if the broadcast itself indicated just how far the emergency had gone.  There was a grim humour (and credibility) to the way that The End Of The World As We Know It began to circle round and round Jeevan’s head.

Clark collates memorabilia from the time before, creating the Museum of Civilisation as he goes.  By twenty years later, he has quite the collection.  The question though of what is worth preserving, remembering, recording is a central one of the novel.  Flashing back to Arthur’s life, he dumps his second wife via Jeevan the journalist, making an ‘off-the-record’ statement because he cannot face telling her face to face.  Twenty years on, Kirsten refuses to discuss the meaning of her knife tattoos until the tape recorder is switched off.  She remembers nothing of the first year after the fall, something her late brother told her was a good thing.  Some things are best left to grow dust.

There are also a sense of mockery for our first-world problems.  Jeevan has searched all his life for a sense of purpose, going from paparazzo to journalist to paramedic and is delighted that in medicine he has finally found his vocation.  Of course, this is the night before the virus hits, after which nobody will have the leisure to search for meaning, they will be too focussed on survival.  One of my favourite passages came when former-consultant Clark published reams of his corporate correspondence in the Museum of Civilisation.  He and a fellow ex-executive giggle over the ridiculousness of the corporate-speak jargon, but there is a shame behind it too, a shame that they had held these things so important.  That the executive’s last phone call was to his boss rather than his wife, that they failed to see where the true worth lay.  As someone who spent three years working in education, I could see what Mandel was getting at.

One of the Station Eleven cartoons

I could not help but reflect on the many different ways in which mankind has imagined its own destruction.  The stories say so much about our cultural concerns – Children of the Dust mirrored fears about nuclear disaster, The Day After Tomorrow worried over climate change, The Tripods alien invasion and The Day of the Triffids solar weaponry.  More recently, How I Live Now depicted the threat of terrorism but its vision is slightly out-moded even now – our society has come to understand the concept of ‘viral’ from seeing Tweets and Instagram shots scampering across the globe.  Has this made us fear viruses more because we can see how they spread?  I enjoyed the point one of the characters made about parallel universes, as each of them imagined their lives in a world where the virus had been weaker – a neat contrast to our obsession with the destruction of humanity.

The other point that struck me was how the loss of the Internet hit the characters.  As Mandel points out via one of her characters, although mankind seemed to have outsourced most of its labour to machines, these machines required humans to operate them.  When the Internet went down, a wealth of information was lost, but there is a sense of a human identity lost too, as if we ‘were’ the Internet.  As someone who has been writing a blog for three and a half years, I am in position to deny that the Internet has shaped my identity, that I do have a sense of my digital footprint but yet I found the idea that the Internet was me to be a very challenging one.

Mandel’s novel is full of glorious images; Clark contemplates the fact that after a few weeks, living out of a suitcase in an airport by a bench has become his normal, Kirsten and August find the new world’s equivalent of a unicorn – an unransacked house.  As they wander into a child’s bedroom and pick over what they want, Kirsten notes to the reader almost casually that the child whose room it was is still there, a husk in the bed.  There there is August speaking his quiet words of prayer over the dead, not for sentimentality but because it made him feel better.  Mandel pitches this novel perfectly – whenever it seems likely to sink into bleakness, there are always moments of humour to pick it up again.  The Travelling Symphony with all of their internal wrangling and bickering are a brilliant plot device, with detailed descriptions of who exactly is or is not speaking to whom.  There is an exuberance and an enthusiasm to Station Eleven which is rarely seen in dystopic fiction as Mandel nimbly weaves her characters together in ways that even they are unaware of.  It ends not so much on a question mark as an ellipses, there is room for a sequel but I found myself hoping that there would not be one, that we would be left with the crocus shoots of a new spring for humanity and a novel that is very close to perfect.

five-stars
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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Picador on January 1st 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Literary, Fiction, General
Pages: 339
Goodreads
ISBN: 1447268970


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3 thoughts on “Review: Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

  1. I absolutely loved this book! It was such a refreshing take on the usual apocalypse story. I was fascinated by the people trying to rebuild their world and that there were people alive who didn't remember things we take for granted, like electricity, refrigerators and credit cards. I started thinking about what books I would keep with me if that happened. I primarily use my Kindle so eventually that would become obsolete in a world like that one.

  2. I know – this was a brilliant book! It was so thought-provoking, how much of our culture would be lost if the Cloud etc was wiped out! And also the way we interact with each other – without Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones, things would be back to base zero. So glad to hear from someone else who loved it too!

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