Friday, May 1, 2015

‘Station Eleven’ – not just future-calisfragil-istic post-apocalyptic

I admit it. When I hear the words “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” or “futuristic” applied to fiction, I run the other way. So I approached Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven with reluctance, even though it was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

In fairness, however, Station Eleven is not your standard, run-of-the-mill doomsday novel. It is tightly constructed and intricately plotted and moves back and forth in time. The pieces are turned and twisted and twisted again, like a Rubik’s Cube, until they all fit together and the entire picture is revealed.

Yes, civilization does collapse as a result of a global pandemic caused by the “Georgian Flu,” which wipes out huge segments of the population. And, yes, there is no electricity, no internet or television, no fuel, no
trains or planes or cars, no businesses, no stores, no pharmaceuticals or hospitals. Just lots and lots and lots of dead people.

There are also some wandering survivors who, we are told, spend the first four years after “The Collapse” walking from place to place, trying to find some remnants of the lives they knew until they finally realize that that world is gone and begin to settle in small encampments. There are also bands of marauding thieves and brigands and a murderous religious cult led by a man calling himself The Prophet.

The novel spans the decades before The Collapse and continues for two decades afterward. It tells the story of Arthur Leander, an aging actor, from his teenage years until the night he collapses and dies of a massive heart attack during a performance of King Lear – on the very night the deadly Georgian flu virus first hits New York. We meet and follow characters who knew Arthur in one way or another:

There is Arthur’s first wife, Miranda. She is an artist who spends years working on a graphic novel called “Station Eleven,” about a space station that has escaped through a wormhole to an alternate universe. Dr. Eleven, a physicist, is the leader of the people who live above-ground on a series of islands. Their arch-enemies live in the Undersea in underwater fallout shelters “clinging to the hope that the world they remembered could be restored.”

Mandel cleverly connects these characters and others through events, objects, memories and unexpected confrontations.

His second wife, Elizabeth, believes “everything happens for a purpose,” and that “everything is part of a plan,” including The Collapse. She is on the way to Arthur’s funeral, along with their young son, Tyler, when the plane is grounded at an airport near the Great Lakes. Arthur’s best friend, Clark, is on the same plane. Tyler, who is Arthur’s only child, reads and re-reads only two books: the New Testament and a copy of Miranda’s graphic novel, “Station Eleven,” which Arthur has sent him.

Then there is Kirsten Raymonde, a former child actor who was on stage and saw Arthur die. She is obsessed with him and collects clippings about him from movie magazines that she finds in post-Collapse abandoned houses. She also has a copy of “Station Eleven” which was given to her by Arthur a few weeks before his death.

Mandel cleverly connects these characters and others through events, objects, memories and unexpected confrontations.

She also makes a point that those things which were “best” about civilization are being preserved, as much as possible, some twenty years after The Collapse. There is a traveling orchestra that plays classical music and a wandering theater company that presents Shakespearean plays. Moreover, there are tiny signs that people are beginning to reconstruct some of the past world: a few schools, flickers of electricity in one town, a library and fledgling newspaper in another.

We are, I think, meant to compare these efforts to the essential shallowness of Arthur’s life and fame, and the purposelessness of much "civilized" life. Arthur’s friend, Clark, a corporate trainer in his pre-Collapse life, interviews a client’s employee about her boss. She describes him as a “joyless bastard”:

“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. … You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep?

While getting the message about the ills of “civilization,” however, the reader has to wonder why it takes twenty years to figure out how to restore electricity or open a shop or repair a bicycle. And why sleep in tents if there are all those abandoned houses?

But the real problem for me, as a reader, is that, in the end, despite the descriptions of danger, desolation, destruction, murders and kidnappings, Station Eleven is not all that terrifying. As The New York Times Books column put it:

Yet, ultimately, ‘Station Eleven’ isn’t very tough. And its biggest scares come early, without much follow-through. No doubt the author’s lack of interest in eliciting conventional responses helps explain her National Book Award nomination, but this is not one of the year’s bolder or more soul-plumbing books. Pandemics ought to be a little less pleasant. (10/30/14)

Photo by Dese’Rae L. Stage 
Emily St. John Mandel is the author of three previous novels. In addition to being a National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, she was also an Arthur C. Clark Award Finalist. Station Eleven was named an American Library Association Notable Book and one of The Washington Post’s 10 Best Books of the Year.

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