Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf     2014
352 pages     Fiction

In the near future, a pandemic called Georgia Flu wipes out much of the world's infrastructure, and the remaining people are left with nothing. Small colonies of people survive like pioneers in settlements across the landscape. The particular landscape of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is Michigan, although much of the pre-pandemic activity takes place in Toronto and Los Angeles. However, the setting is immaterial to the plot, because what is left is desolation. 

As a little girl, Kirsten meets a famous actor, Arthur Leander, when she was performing in a production of King Lear in Toronto. It happened to be the night Leander died—right before the Georgia Flu destroys everything Kirsten knows. Twenty years later, she finds herself acting in a Shakespearean theater/musical ensemble called the Traveling Symphony. They are a ragtag group of survivors who travel the coastline of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron entertaining the small villages of survivors. 

The storyline goes from past to present, weaving the motley group of characters together, until plot lines converge at a former airport that serves as home to 300 people, including children born in the years after the calamity. The children know nothing about electricity, cell phones, or even stiletto high heels, but they know a lot about survival. Arthur Leander is the tie that binds all the characters and the artifacts together—that and King Lear and the saying tattooed on Kirsten's arm—"Survival is insufficient."

Unlike many dystopian authors, Mandel is not caught up in a specific genre. Although several reviewers were put off by inconsistencies in the level of dystopia, or the details of survival, or even the science fiction references, all were completely enthralled by Mandel's meditations on the value of life, of happiness, of—dare we say it—joy. Mandel objects to Station Eleven being categorized as science fiction, although it is set in a future time. She sees her novel as literary fiction, and I would have to agree with her. Although there are elements of science fiction and there certainly are dystopian elements, Station Eleven is so reflective and pensive that it defies description. It did remind me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but Station Eleven is more encouraging in the emphasis that the author places on human resiliency and the possibility of a better future. The reviewer in SF Gate says:  "The novel is less horror story than elegiac lament; its pacing is slow and its style understated. Station Eleven is terrifying, reminding us of how paper-thin the achievements of civilization are. But it’s also surprisingly — and quietly — beautiful."

I was particularly struck by the way in which the ordinariness of life is emphasized in Station Eleven. These are people who have lived for 20 years without the niceties of life in the past civilization. They do not even choose to live in abandoned houses. The old life is completely abandoned. One reviewer remarks, "Station Eleven implies that a major collapse might cripple the world, but would not ruin it, nor the people who remain in it." Also significant is the purpose of the Traveling Symphony. They visit the small villages playing music and performing Shakespeare, because that is what people want—that is beauty that they can cling to. 

I wrote an essay about a year ago about why teenagers love dystopian novels in which I mused that perhaps society is preparing itself for an apocalypse. The SF Gate reviewer remarks:  "This is the power of dystopian stories, which remain all the rage this year: They shed light not only on our present anxieties about humanity’s collapse, but on how people act when they’re placed, more or less, in a vacuum." 

As I tramped up and down the familiar Lake Michigan coastline with Kirsten and the Symphony in Station Eleven, I was reminded of something my son told me the day after he and his sister lived through September 11, 2001. He said that all he could think about was that my husband and I would come as close to the city as we could, find them, and drive to the family cottages on Lake Michigan where we would all be safe. 

The SF Gate review.
The New York Times review.

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