Station Eleven: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 448 pp)
Emily St. John Mandel was born and raised on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. She studied contemporary dance at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly in Montreal before relocating to New York. Her fourth novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Award Finalist. All four of her novels—previous books were Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet—were Indie Next Picks, and The Singer’s Gun was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous connections, including The Best American Short Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband.
The Walking Dead dominates cable television. Both Autumn Sundays and Winter-Spring Sundays conclude with religious viewing on the end of the world. The series has its fair share of action and violence sure tickles the funny bones of many viewers, but violence isn’t the only reason we watch. The post-apocalyptic theme causes much intrigue in and of itself.
Why do we want to see the end of the world? One could posit many reasons, but for me, much of it resides in the idea of stripping away extraneous aspects of our culture to arrive at the heart of what it means to be human. What would it be like if every cause of distraction in your life disappeared one day? How would you adapt? What happens to your friends and family when food becomes scarce? Is life a virtuous existence? Or does it become more base and animalistic? Is life itself sufficient?
Emily St. John Mandel’s stunning work, Station Eleven approaches the post-apocalyptic question from an interesting angle. It begins with its main character dying. From there, the story builds out into the unknown future of a world ravaged by a form of avian influenza, labeled the Georgia Flu (for the country Georgia, not the state).
Pre, During, Post
Much of the story before the pandemic centers on a famous actor, Arthur Leander, a Hollywood type with a pile of divorces in his rear-view mirror.
The events in the immediate aftermath of this flu strain become chronicled through the story of Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo in a former life, now faced with navigating a fast-spreading disease. Luckily, he receives an early tip-off from a friend and doctor:
“Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life” (20).
This flu rips through the body, killing its victims within a day, and it spreads like wildfire. Jeevan knows he needs to stock up on supplies and hope to weather the storm with his brother in a Toronto high rise.
Lastly, from the future, we learn of what has occurred through small details told in the narrative of Kirsten, an actor specializing in Shakespeare:
“Twenty years earlier, in a life she mostly couldn’t remember, she had had a small nonspeaking role in a short-lived Toronto production of King Lear. Now she walked in sandals whose soles had been cut from an automobile tire, three knives in her belt” (35).
She ventures around the burnt husk of the Great Lakes with the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and thespians, making camp in “towns”—more like huts around old gas stations—and performing for the escapement of others.
Kirsten fastidiously collects remnants of the previous life, her prized possession a limited-print comic book series called Station Eleven written by the first wife of Arthur Leander.
Destiny in the Details
While the connections between Arthur, Jeevan, and Kirsten offer a fascinating look into life and the ways we weave our existence between people we don’t even know, the fascinating aspect of Station Eleven exists in Mandel’s ability to focus on the details.
In a devastating passage, she lists the things the world will never experience again:
“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by” (31).
Even more, her prose expounds pre-apocalyptic life with consistent mentions of impending doom:
“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city” (15).
Taken together, Mandel illustrates a devastating miasma with characters that feel real. Books like Station Eleven offer clear reasons for why post-apocalyptic themes hold such sway. They strip away those items that create noise in our current life. They force characters into situations where the very definition of humanity raises question. If you want some post-apocalyptic literature in your life, check out Station Eleven.
Verdict: 5 out of 5