Knopf, 2014, 336 pages
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
Stephen King's The Stand is one of my favorite books, so any novel about a flu that wipes out civilization is going to be compared to that and make me wonder how much the author was inspired by King. Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a much softer apocalypse, however, touching only lightly on the horrors and violence of the collapse, and while there is a evil prophet with a sinister band of followers, they aren't that sinister or that threatening, and the final confrontation is not an epic battle of Good vs. Evil, but two bands of people driven by different motivations, where only one group can walk away.
The story of the Traveling Symphony, which travels from town to town in the years following a flu that wiped out 99% of the population, performing Shakespeare for the survivors, is one of trying to bring back civilization, or at least keep a memory of it alive long enough for their descendants to rebuild and reach a point where survival isn't all that matters. Hence the line from Star Trek, featuring repeatedly in this novel, as it is tattooed on one character's arm: "Survival is insufficient."
Station Eleven is full of pop culture references like that. The linking thread is a Hollywood actor, Arthur Leander, who died before the deadly flu even hit, but as the story skips back and forth from past to present, we go through Arthur's life, his multiple marriages, his ascent from a small-town boy on an island in British Columbia to Hollywood's A-List, and finally his death on-stage performing King Lear. It's an interesting narrative device, spending many chapters presenting a biography of a fictional character who we already know is dead before the novel's main event. We only learn of the connections between him, the Traveling Symphony, and the Prophet, many years later.
This is a literary post-apocalyptic novel, more about characters and connections and memory and how people get by in whatever circumstances life throws at them, than a survival story per se. There are actually few truly evil characters in the book — marauding bands of raiders and despotic warlords are only mentioned in passing as something that might have happened elsewhere. We see little of what has become of the world outside the route the Traveling Symphony takes through what was once the American Midwest.
It's a good story, but really a story about interconnected human relationships with an apocalyptic flu as the framing device. So it's an unusual post-apocalyptic story, but no less interesting because of that, though perhaps a little less exciting. The closest comparison I can think of it not actually The Stand, but David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Station Eleven is not as creative as Cloud Atlas, but it has that same sense of wrapping an ultimately uplifting story about humanity inside a science fictional narrative.
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