Station Eleven: A Novel
Vintage (June 2015), trade paper (ISBN 9780804172448)
Fiction, 352 pages
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I’m inconsistent in my response to “everyone’s talking about it” novels, but more often than not, I tend to wait until the talk has died down a bit. Everyone was talking about Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven around this time last year…and I was waiting. I was waiting to decide whether I even wanted to read it, to be honest. The descriptions I read didn’t seem to be giving me enough information to decide about it, and so even once I did make the choice to add it to my wish list, I still wasn’t entirely sure.
Now that I’ve read it, I understand that I wasn’t getting a lot of information from descriptions of Station Eleven because it’s just not that easy to describe. That difficulty begins with categorization; I’ve seen it identified as both literary fiction and science fiction, and both labels apply.
The novel moves back and forth in time within the twenty-year period following a flu pandemic that wiped out 99% of the world’s population and nearly all of its technology, and goes further back to explore the lives of two characters who die at the very beginning of the outbreak, before “the world ends.” The title comes from a very limited-edition graphic novel about a time-traveling physicist, “Doctor Eleven,” living on a space station after Earth is destroyed. The post-pandemic storyline follows a theatre troupe that travels from one settlement to another, mostly on foot, performing classical music and Shakespeare—art must remain, because “survival is insufficient”—and eluding a doomsday cult as they make their way toward a rumored “Museum of Civilization.”
One copy of Station Eleven, the graphic novel, has been with Kirsten Raymonde since just before the pandemic began, given to her by actor Arthur Leander when they were both appearing in King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto; the novel was authored by Miranda Carroll, the first of Arthur’s three ex-wives. A child actor when the world ended, Kirsten survived the pandemic with little memory of the time before it happened, eventually becoming a performer with the Traveling Symphony.
Another copy of Station Eleven went to Arthur’s son Tyler, who was on a plane with his mother Elizabeth Colton (Arthur’s second ex-wife) when the flu outbreak struck and all air travel was shut down. Their flight was one of many diverted to and quarantined in a regional Midwestern airport; twenty years later, some of the stranded passengers are still there, finding ways to keep surviving in this new world and, because survival is insufficient, preserving what remnants of the old world they can find.
Although Station Eleven, the graphic novel, plays a major role in the narrative of Station Eleven, Mandel doesn’t elaborate all that much on the story within it. I didn’t consider that a huge loss, as I think that would have introduced a meta-fictional element that wasn’t entirely necessary, especially on top of everything else she’s doing here. (It also allowed me to mentally transpose “Doctor Eleven” as “Eleventh Doctor,” and while Mandel might not have intended the Whovian reference, I appreciated the opportunity to run with it anyway.)
The major plot points are what lands Station Eleven in the science-fiction section, sub-category “post-apocalypse,” but science fiction has a long tradition of affording a framework for exploring larger themes of culture, morality, and the ultimate meaning of human life. Mandel’s novel stands firmly within that tradition, while its complex narrative structure and emotional impact nudge it into the neighborhood of literary fiction. It’s a remarkable example of either, or both, forms—accomplished, intelligent, moving, and memorable. I borrowed this from the library, but I think I’ll be buying a paperback copy for my keeper shelf.
I read Station Eleven in audio, narrated by Kirsten Potter. Potter’s reading of Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial was a factor in why that book made such an impression on me—this was my first time hearing her read fiction, but she played a similar role here, enhancing my enjoyment of a great piece of writing.
Rating: Book and audio, 4 of 5
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.
From Part One:
“Jeevan’s understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he’d seen a lot of action movies. He started with water, filled one of the oversized shopping carts with as many cases and bottles as he could fit. There was a moment of doubt on the way to the cash registers, straining against the weight of the cart—was he overreacting?—but there was a certain momentum now, too late to turn back. The clerk raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“’I’m parked just outside,’ he said. ‘I’ll bring the cart back.’ The clerk nodded, tired. She was young, early twenties probably, with dark bangs that she kept pushing out of her eyes. He forced the impossibly heavy cart outside and half-pushed, half-skidded through the snow at the exit. There was a long ramp down into a small park-like arrangement of benches and planters. The cart gained speed on the incline, bogged down in deep snow at the bottom of the ramp and slid sideways into a planter.
“It was eleven twenty. The supermarket closed in forty minutes. He was imagining how long it would take to bring the cart up to Frank’s apartment, to unload it, the time required for tedious explanations and reassurances of sanity before he could return to the grocery store for more supplies. Could there be any harm in leaving the cart here for the moment?”
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