Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. New York: Knopf, 2014.
Summary: An account of the end of civilization as we know it after a catastrophic pandemic, and how survivors sought to keep beauty and the memory of what was alive as they struggled against destructive forces to rebuild human society.
Arthur Leander, an accomplished actor who burned through marriages, is on stage in the middle of performing King Lear when his own heart gives out and he dies on stage, despite the effort of a medic in training, Jeevan. Watching is a young child actor, Kirsten Raymonde, who often talked to Arthur. A kind woman takes her aside, noticing an unusual graphic novel of a settlement of survivors on a watery planet, Station Eleven, a gift from Arthur that Kirsten carries for the next twenty years.
That night, as the snow fell on Toronto, was the beginning of the end of civilization. Jeevan’s friend Hua, working at a hospital, calls, urging Jeevan to leave immediately. The hospital is full of flu cases, many but not all from a plane from Russia. Before long, every last one is dead, and all who came in contact are sick, including Hua. None will live. In days, nearly everyone around the world dies. The media goes dead, then the internet, and finally utilities. Planes are grounded. Permanently. Cars run out of gas. Only about one in two hundred and fifty survive.
Emily St. John Mandel, in Station Eleven, imagines a post-pandemic, post-civilization world. Yes, it is a world of predators. Kirsten, a survivor has two knives tattooed on her wrist, the lives taken by her knives. She doesn’t remember her first year, and doesn’t want to. But there are also those who seek to hold on to remnants of beauty. She is part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors on a circuit up and down Michigan, performing great music and the works of Shakespeare.
Some towns reconstitute themselves. And some become dangerous. One, St Deborah by the Water, has been taken over by The Prophet and his cult, a Jonestown-type scenario. The Traveling Symphony escapes, along with a child who stows away to escape becoming another of The Prophet’s brides. This sets up a climactic confrontation.
The story goes back and forth tracing the lives of the people connected to Arthur and that night in Toronto, both before and after the pandemic. We meet Clark, a gay actor friend of Arthur’s, one of the survivors living at the Severn City Airport, where flights had been grounded, turning it into its own community. He becomes a curator of The Museum of Civilization, with artifacts from laptops and smartphones to newspapers, all from the time before the pandemic. There was a former wife of Arthur there as well, with their child, Tyler, who has a disturbing habit of quoting apocalyptic passages from the Bible. They eventually leave. Jeevan eventually walks a thousand miles from Toronto to a settlement in what was Virginia.
And there is Miranda Carroll, the artist of Station Eleven. We learn her story, how she met and married author and wrote and drew Station Eleven, giving Arthur two copies shortly before his death…and hers.
Beyond imagining what a world nearly wiped out by a pandemic might be like (a prescient book, written six years before 2020), Mandel explores the powerful longing to cling to the good and the beautiful, and to human community, even when all else falls apart. She reminds us that the complex thing we call civilization is actually a thin veneer, easily stripped away. The question is, what then remains? When the veneer falls away, will there be brutes or beauties?
And what stories will shape us, and how will we read them? There were two copies of Station Eleven. Kirsten had one, and it profoundly shaped her imagination. We learn that the other copy also shaped an imagination, but quite differently. We’re reminded not only of the power of story but also that no two people read a story in the same way.
One final caveat. Don’t do what I did and read the opening chapters of the book the day before returning home on a plane full of people. Those who have read Station Eleven will understand.
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