Emily St. John Mandel
Completed 5/13/2015, Reviewed 5/21/2015
I have been reading way too many apocalyptic novels lately. “Station Eleven” is another one. The world comes to a screeching halt when the Georgia flu nearly wipes out the human population in a few weeks. One young survivor, Kirsten Raymonde, is part of a travelling theater and orchestra, bringing rare moments of happiness to the enclaves left in the aftermath of the flu. After becoming separated from the group, she is hunted by the leader of a dangerous cult. This is just the barest of summaries of the book. It’s actually much more, reminding me of the multithreaded films “Babel” and “Amores Peros” by Alejandro González Iñárritu, filled with the intertwining stories of multiple people before and after apocalypse comes. It was riveting, and like a great end-of-the-world story, it made me have to regularly stop, take deep breaths, walk around, and remind myself that “it’s only a story”.
It’s hard to say that the main plot follows Kirsten, because there is another major character, Arthur Leander, a former Hollywood star who dies onstage in the 4th act of King Lear just as the Georgia flu breaks out in North America. Kirsten is a child actress in the play, and though we follow her travels twenty years later, the story bounces around, revealing Arthur’s past and the pre- and post-apocalyptic lives of some of the people with whom he came in contact. The beauty of the book is in this bouncing device. It reveals the course of the epidemic, adds insight to the characters, and creates surprising connections.
If the book is about anything, it’s about the need for art and culture to give meaning to our lives, even if it’s bad culture. Kirsten carries with her two comic books in the “Station Eleven” series. There’s no author, only initials. And none of the survivors have ever heard of it. She reads them over and over, finding solace in their stories. She also collects clippings of Arthur from tabloid magazines that she comes across in her travels with her company. Her obsession with him stems from his kindness to her right before he died. Having been only eight years old when the flu struck, these are the few connections to the past that give meaning to her present. However in an ironic twist, one of the things that brings joy to Kirsten spurs another character into a world of evil.
As I mentioned at the beginning, reading a lot of end of the world scenarios has really affected me. It makes me wonder if my love of the book was predetermined by the compounding effect of “The Last Policeman” trilogy and “Alas Babylon. And I’ve always been a sucker for good disaster porn (Irwin Allen was one of my childhood favorites). But unlike “The Towering Inferno”, “Armageddon”, and “2012”, this isn’t soapy or silly. It’s never melodramatic. It’s a character study of ordinary people in extraordinary times. It left me very shaken and wearily exhilarated. Five stars out of 5.