In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, most of humanity has succumbed to a wicked strain of influenza. This strain kills people within days if not hours. Some people who have been isolated or possess immunity survive. The story is told from several viewpoints and time periods. All the main characters intersect in some way with one Arthur Leander, a famous actor, who dies suddenly of heart failure on the stage while performing King Lear several weeks before the epidemic breaks out. Mandel tells us some of Arthur’s story, before the epidemic, and the stories of two others who were present the night of his death.
One woman’s story takes place mainly in the post influenza world and we also learn how another man survived while the epidemic unfolded. In the end of the novel, the three stories are tied back to together again in the post-apocalyptic present. There was a lot of description of what the world is like after the end of cars, planes, and things powered by gasoline, the end of communications like telephones and Internet, the danger of strangers and the necessity of self-defense, and what it takes to survive by scavenging, hunting, and simple farming. Some of this seemed a bit ho-hum if you’ve ever read The Stand or any Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood, but Mandel seemed particularly interested in using these descriptions to explore notions of memory and forgetting. Some characters had no memory of the way life was before the epidemic, some blocked it out as a means to survive, and others literally built a museum to the remnants of civilization. The one really odd and unique thing I noted in Mandel’s world was that people stopped living in houses and instead seemed to prefer living in old gas stations, Walmarts, motels, or even an airport, perhaps so they could band together. One theme that I really liked in the book was that of theater/fame/celebrity. All three main characters are tied to it–Arthur is an incredibly famous actor–a Jack Nicholson or Tom Hanks kind of guy–who can’t stop acting even in real life; Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag band of traveling musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare whenever they stop in one of the small communities that have sprung up in their post-epidemic “territory;” and Jeevan is an unhappy parasite of celebrity who worked as a paparazzi and entertainment reporter before the flu. The Traveling Symphony reminded me very much, and I think intentionally so, of the traveling bands of actors during the Middle Ages. Shakespeare is mentioned over and over in the story and it was hard not to think of the famous lines from As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts,…
Station Eleven is not a piteously dark, terrifying, or depressing book. The book ends, surprisingly, with a bit of hope that people will be able to reclaim some parts of lost civilization, like electricity. And one is also left with the impression that the better parts of humanity–love, community, family–will flourish and perhaps more so in a world without all the stage dressing. A few lines I really liked:
None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended.
The maintenance of sanity required some recalibrations having to do with memory and sight.
My eldest born, my only born, my heart.
4/5 ebook copy Alfred A. Knopf, 2014