Station Eleven a Superb (even hopeful) Look at the Apocalypse

Station Eleven (2014)
Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 353 pp. ISB; 978038535304
* * * *

These are not the most optimistic of times. Nineteenth-century novelists looked at the world's travails and cranked out utopian fiction; these days we parlay our gloom into apocalyptic imaginings. Add Emily St. John Mandel to the growing list of dystopian writers, though she manages to hint at more hopefulness than most.

There are echoes of Peter Heller's The Dog Stars, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in Station Eleven. As in Heller, a pandemic–the Georgian Flu this time–has wiped out 99% of humankind and human infrastructure fails bit by bit until electronics and material possessions are little more than curiosity objects to be displayed in the ironically named Museum of Civilization. As in McCarthy, the cities have been emptied and are fit only for occasional foraging trips, if you can avoid the savage gangs lurking nearby. And, like Cloud Atlas, St. John Mandel tells her tale in flashbacks and non-linear sequences.

The story opens in Toronto on what is, for most, the last day on earth. Aging actor Arthur Leander is on stage performing the title role in King Lear. Leander, a famed Hollywood actor bored with glitz and shallow glamour, literally dies on stage despite the efforts of audience member Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, to revive him. (Hmmm—one of Lear's daughters was named Regan and Birdman's lead character, who collapses on stage, is named Riggan Thompson, Thompson being the last name of one of St. John Mandel's characters. Maybe just a coincidence.) Also on stage at the time was eight-year-old child actress Kirsten Raymonde, to whom Leander had been exceedingly kind. Leander's death is a shock to all, but his exit was merciful compared with the flu that destroys most human life.

Eighteen years later Kirsten struggles to recall Arthur or, indeed, what the world was like before the pandemic. Rusting cars and planes litter the countryside, their fuel long since too stale to power them. There is no electricity, no communications network, no food industry–humankind has been reduced to hunting, gathering, and subsistence agriculture. But Kirsten is still acting–in an itinerant musical/dramatic ensemble called the Traveling Symphony. The band travels to and from scattered small settlements in what used to be Ontario and the Upper Midwest of the United States. Why take such risks on dangerous open roads? The Symphony's slogan and Kirsten's tattoo say it all: "Because survival is insufficient." That line is lifted from Star Trek and it's one of two ways in which science fiction directs Kirsten's fate. The other is embedded in one of the few material possessions she carries: a single issue of a graphic novel given to her by Leander before he died, Station Eleven, Volume One, No. 2. It's a beautifully illustrated post-apocalyptic tale of humankind adrift in a space station in hope of re-establishing the species. Although Kirsten doesn't know, Leander's first wife, Miranda Carroll, penned it.

We learn of Kirsten's childhood, Leander's back-story, and that of Clark Thompson–Arthur's best friend who survived the flu–through flashbacks. We soon suspect that Arthur is the story's linchpin, but we don't know how. It gives away nothing to say that Leander hailed from a tiny town on a British Columbia island that, for him, represented Paradise Lost when he opted for Gomorrah in the form of Los Angeles. Ironically, upon his passing, the remnants of humankind live in analogous island communities.

There is very little stability in the world, but whatever Kirsten and her companions had evaporates when the Symphony passes through St. Deborah by the Water, a town under the grip of The Prophet, a self-proclaimed messiah unafraid of using violence in the name of an imagined greater good. Kirsten's survival comes to rely upon making her way to the Museum of Civilization and a community that supposedly lives in an abandoned airport, though both may be apocryphal.

St. John Mandel's narrative skips between the past and present, makes detours into the Station Eleven graphic novel, drops King Lear references, and blurs the line between life and the stage. Her prose is poetic, her storytelling topnotch, and her sense of drama acute. Yes, it's a post-apocalyptic tale, but it also takes time to dwell upon small things–the beauty of the countryside, a deer running, fragmentary memories, a tender exchange between two people–that indeed suggest that survival alone is insufficient. Mandel St. John is even so bold as to suggest that the breaking of humanity's distracting toys allows for the recovery of more authentic things. Its central revelations are convincing and the book ends ambiguously, but suggestively upbeat. Okay, 99% of the human race is dead, but it's been a while since the collapse of the species felt so optimistic. Station Eleven is certainly one of the better novels of 2014.  Rob Weir 

1 comment:

Jan Watson said...

Just started it. Also brings to mind "The Handmaid's Tale." The main character reaches a progressive enclave at the end.