Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by HarperCollins on September 9, 2014
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Science Fiction
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An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous novels.
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, 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.
I recently picked this up for an assignment on Canadian literature. I’d read numerous positive reviews – from Jamie, Hannah, Karen, and Blair – so I was really looking forward to this book. While literary science fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, the dazzling reviews were enough to sway me. Station Eleven is about a lethal flu epidemic that plagues our world and the ensuing aftermath. The narrative focuses on several characters each related, in some way, to a famous Hollywood actor who dies onstage during a production of “King Lear” in the opening pages. In an interview with the New York Times, Mandel said, “I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence.” I was pleasantly surprised by this insightful look into our world, our culture, and our humanity.
Part of what made this book so rich for me was how well Mandel developed a response to what exactly happens when 99% of the world’s population dies from an influenza epidemic. It’s about resilience, of the body, of the mind, and of the heart. I loved the multiple narratives in this book because it demonstrates so well how many different reactions are possible. A recurrent theme is that survival is not enough, and while Mandel writes characters who embody this concept, there are others who aren’t as mentally resilient.
These characters, though – they’re insanely realistic. I LOVE THEM. I ached for them. Their stories felt so tragic but so beautifully expressed. However, I don’t think there’s any way to explain these characters or their plots without ruining it all. Part of the enchantment of this book is the suspense: you don’t know how everything links together, and it seems to take forever to figure it out, but you do eventually.
The narrative has a wonderful sense of self-consciousness. You always have a sense of where you are currently in the timeline of the novel (which is long). I love this passage, which really exemplifies what I’m trying to describe:
“standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together.”
We jump around from the moment the epidemic was unfolding and 20+ years after it happened, as well as a few memories from way before the epidemic. It really conveys a sense of shock when you go from completely normal – like our current world – to complete devastation and craziness. Super, super scary. I love when Mandel described the world 20+ years out, though, because it was so interesting to compare people who’s attitudes and experiences are so similar to mine, to a generation who grows up without any of the “modern conveniences” we are accustomed to (i.e. electricity, plumbing, gasoline, Internet).
For me, this book ticked every box: while the pacing is slower, it’s elegant and unique, and the characters and plot are expressed beautifully. Mandel is a wonderful storyteller. Her writing demonstrates that she put a lot of thought into the story, and it is completely controlled. That is the mark of an extremely talented writer; she knows everything but isn’t overhanded by revealing it all at once. If you enjoy books with interesting characters and emotional narratives, this one’s for you.
“‘It’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts. . . . 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. Dan’s like that. . . . You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”
“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”
“Something I’ve been thinking about, which will sound harsh and I’m sorry: you said you’d always be my friend but you’re not, actually, are you? I’ve only realized that recently. You don’t have any interest in my life. This is going to seem bitter but I don’t mean it that way, V., I’m just stating a fact here: you’ll only ever call me if I call you first. Have you noticed that? If I call and leave a message you’ll call me back, but you will never call me first. And I think that’s kind of a horrible thing, V., when you’re supposed to be someone’s friend. I always come to you. You always say you’re my friend but you’ll never come to me and I think I have to stop listening to your words, V., and take stock instead in your actions. My friend C. thinks my expectations of friendship are too high but I don’t think he’s right.”
“Survival is insufficient.”