Cormac McCarthy’s The Road meets Ingmar Bergman’s film Sawdust and Tinsel in Emily St. John Mandel’s stirring new novel Station Eleven.
By David Nilsen
Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel begins at the end of the world and ends at the hopeful beginning of another.
A worldwide flu pandemic wipes out well over ninety-nine percent of the world’s population in a matter of weeks. Electricity and fuel are no longer available. Governments, public services, and national borders cease to exist. The small pockets of humanity that remain must scrabble together an existence among the vacant infrastructure of a world that once held seven billion people. The ruins of civilization become something of a museum to the once great human endeavor, and more than anything else Mandel’s novel concerns itself with this reflection – what does it mean to be a person who lives at a time when we have unprecedented access to transportation, communication, information, and entertainment, and what does it mean to be a person who lives after all of that is gone? When everything that currently defines our lives is removed, what remains? When holding onto the memory of a once happier life both soothes and torments, which memories are worth the effort of preserving, and which are discarded?
The novel opens with a middle-aged film actor named Arthur Leander dying of a heart attack on stage during a theater production of King Lear. An audience member named Jeevan Chaudhary jumps on stage to try to resuscitate him. We come to find out Jeevan was once a paparazzo whose job required stalking and harassing Arthur and his family. The night of Arthur’s death a strain of flu called Georgia Flu hits North America, spreading rapidly. Jeevan holes up with his brother in an apartment and watches on the news and out the window as the world falls apart.
“But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.”
Twenty years later we catch up with Kirsten Raymonde, a young woman who had been on stage with Arthur the night he died, though she was only a child then. Her brief time of knowing Arthur has impacted her life in profound ways. When we meet her as an adult she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a small troupe of actors and musicians who travel on foot across the Great Lakes region performing classical music and Shakespeare’s plays for the small towns that sparsely dot the countryside. Life on the road in this nearly deserted landscape is certainly hard, as food, water, and supplies are always hard to come by, but the strain has become a manageable burden most of the time.
In one small town the Symphony encounters a figure known as the Prophet, a young man who leads a cult whose adherents believe they are God’s chosen who survived his divine judgment, the Georgia Flu. The troupe leaves the town without incident, but escaping the reach of this dangerous and charismatic figure does not prove so simple as the narrative progresses.
Throughout Station Eleven, we jump between characters and time periods, examining Arthur’s acting career and failed marriages in one chapter and looking in on the makeshift society that has sprung up in a now useless airport terminal in the next. The nature of the narrative allows Mandel to explore a variety of different fiction genres and prose styles, and, for the most part, she maintains balance and rhythm throughout these many leaps.
The majority of post-apocalyptic novels are bleak and seem preoccupied with violence and vice, focusing on the darkest possibilities following a societal collapse. Station Eleven is instead hopeful and instilled with grace, but without smacking too much of wishful fantasy. The characters are basically good, and the sparse population that survives the flu pandemic is for the most part mutually cooperative and peaceful. This unique view of humanity after cataclysm is refreshing in the genre and allows for a tranquil and pensive exploration of what it might be like for ordinary people to survive the years after such an event. Still, I think Mandel has more basic faith in human nature than this reviewer possesses. I have to assume a drastic reduction in our world’s population would not suddenly remove humanity’s propensity for violence and greed. The only real villain in the book is the Prophet, a man who convinces his followers they are morally superior beings who survived God’s judgment on the wicked, but Mandel’s novel seems to operate under this same delusion. The Georgia Flu apparently had it out for the world’s more dangerous sinners. Only the saints made it to her pages.
The realism with which the end of civilization occurs and Mandel’s ordinary characters experience it struck me as keenly insightful. Most characters in post-apocalyptic novels or movies seem to somehow know they are experiencing the apocalypse and spring into action too easily. In reality, most of us would seek to hold onto a sense of normality long after it became unhelpful to our survival. The characters in the book watch the news and hope for the best while trying to subdue their own panic. They peek our their windows. They make small talk with strangers at the small airport they’re stranded at, assuming with their fellow travelers this will all get sorted out soon and life will return to normal. It doesn’t, and those who survive the flu slowly adapt as they must.
Shortly after the pandemic, there is a moment when a character is reflecting upon his situation and trying to preserve his own sanity. He recites truths about his identity to keep himself from losing control. This sentence comes next: “But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.” I would like to have seen more of these introspective passages in which Mandel lets her words drift into lovely phrases that aid the novel’s spirit more than its mechanics. Mandel’s prose is sure and pleasant but at times feels overly trimmed, as though she stopped herself short of letting her sentences take flight, matching the limitations of her characters who must resign themselves to walking. When she lets loose a line like the above, it’s jolting in its beauty. I would have enjoyed more of them.
There is a point shortly after this when the same character has nearly despaired of continuing on with the struggle to find other survivors. He recites a mantra to himself: “Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking.” It is this insistence of the human spirit that drives the hope at the center of Mandel’s novel. Station Eleven is a lovely book that left me pondering its implicit questions for days.
Station Eleven is available now at the Greenville Public Library.