image courtesy of: http://www.npr.org/2015/06/20/415782006/survival-is-insufficient-station-eleven-preserves-art-after-the-apocalypse
When a genre and the tropes associated with it has become so pervasive in popular culture, writers who choose to tackle it must either go along with what has been established by their predecessors or create something all-their-own. In ‘Station Eleven,’ Emily St. John Mandel not only accomplishes the former but injects new life into a genre that has been done to death. This is a post-apocalyptic novel that transcends pulpy conventions in favor of profound statements about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of sweeping change.
The book begins with a brutal snow storm in Toronto when aging actor Arthur Leander is trying to revive his career with a production of ‘King Lear.’ When Arthur suffers a heart attack in the middle of the production, Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic connected to Arthur in a way he doesn’t realize, tries and fails to save the actor. Watching back stage is Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor who will carry more from this night than bad memories. Unbeknownst to everyone, the world outside the theater is beginning a vociferous slide to oblivion, as the Georgia flu spreads across Earth, rapidly eating away at all the civilized world holds dear. From there the novel jumps back and forth in time: twenty years in the future, Kirsten is a member of the ‘Traveling Symphony,’ a troupe of Shakespearean actors moving from one encampment to another, using theatre to preserve the last remnants of civilized culture. When the plague is in its earliest stages, we see Jeevan trapped in the city, desperately trying to keep himself and his disabled brother alive. Meanwhile those closest to Arthur – his former wives, and best friend, Clark – deal with the after math of his untimely death, while flashbacks trace the evolution of Arthur’s career and love life.
The primary theme of Mandel’s novel is how events outside of our control can forge subtle bonds between us. As the events in the separate timelines unfold, one gets a sense that nothing they’re reading is random; that it was impossible for things to transpire in any other way, not out of any mystical sense of destiny, but rather due to laws of physics and probability. Through a series of disasters, the Symphony finds themselves splintered, with their only hope of finding one another resting in their cardinal rule: “The Symphony Always has a destination, if you get separated, go to the destination and wait.” That happens to be Severn City, home of the Museum of Civilization. Little does Kirsten know, that she and her companions are moving towards more than just hope of a reunion, but the source of something akin to logic in their chaotic world; something which may prove that order is a natural feature of life, and not a product of man’s gaudy inventions.
Rather than focusing on either the chaotic period in the beginning or years after, when the world has settled into its new state of being, Mandel takes a less conventional approach to apocalyptic fiction, alternating between both, as-well-as having key scenes take place when the world is still stable. By showing characters in the time of transition, and then after, Mandel makes us contemplate our relationship to the civilized world. The best example of this are the scenes in-which Clark curates objects for what will become The Museum of Civilization. While stranded in the airport, Clark gathers what would otherwise be junk: abandoned shoes, magazines, discarded credit cards, and puts them on display, seemingly aware that a day will come in which they will have value as proof of what once was. Some other interesting passages are interviews between Kirsten and Francois Diallo, the editor of a recently established newspaper. Francois asks Kirsten about her life with the symphony:
Perhaps the most interesting passages are interviews between Kirsten and Francois Diallo, the editor of a recently established newspaper. Francois asks Kirsten about her travels with the symphony:
“Some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to this one place where the children didn’t know the world had been different, although you’d think all the rusted out automobiles and telephone wires would give them a clue. “
These interviews serve a dual purpose: that a newspaper is able to not only exist, but conduct an interview with a Shakespearean actor, demonstrates humanity’s desire for something greater than mere survival. What’s more, they provide a raw, intimate perspective to the post-civilized world. Kirsten is fascinating as a protagonist, instead of plowing through life with resigned stoicism or bemoaning the loss of what she knew, she accepts that which cannot be reversed, and creates her own sense of purpose in a world where such things are no longer guaranteed. Her’s is a journey which is dark and quiet, and uniquely human.