Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014; 333 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
Two decades have passed since the world’s population was virtually eradicated by the global outbreak of a virus known as “Georgian Flu.” Major cities have been abandoned. All gasoline has gone stale and electricity can only be generated using methods even Michael Faraday would find primitive. This grim period serves as the principal setting for Emily St. John Mandel’s intricate and inviting dystopian novel, Station Eleven. Her premise isn’t groundbreaking, but Madel’s execution is remarkable. Thanks to its heavy doses of elevated diction and subplots infused with earnestness, Station Eleven successfully stands out from the apocalyptic crowd.
Only a few of Mandel’s characters survive both the flu and the horrors of its aftermath; hardly any of them are old enough to remember the world before its collapse. To accommodate this lack, Mandel’s narrator leaps back and forth in time, piecing together the stories of three key characters who impact each other’s lives in mainly unexpected ways. The characters are disparate but alike in their restlessness: Jeevan Chaudhary, an EMT trainee who’s mostly ashamed of his previous career as a paparazzo; Arthur Leander, a small-town boy who, by middle age, achieves stardom on stage and screen but ends up divorcing three wives in the process; and Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress who survives the disintegration of civilization to become part of a roving symphony and acting troupe in the Great Lakes region.
Fittingly, these three characters are together in the novel’s opening scene. Arthur is on stage at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, playing the lead in King Lear. For the moment, civilization is still intact. Kirsten, who is eight at the time, plays Cordelia. The actors are in the midst of Act IV when Jeevan rises anxiously from his seat in the orchestra section. Arthur has suddenly “cradled his hand to his chest like a broken bird” and is fumbling his lines. Recognizing that the actor is suffering a heart attack, Jeevan rushes onstage in an attempt to render aid. There’s nothing he can do. Barely three pages into the novel, Arthur dies behind the closed curtain as the cast gawks in horror and plastic snowflakes dust his corpse. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the night of Arthur’s death also marks the beginning of the Georgian Flu epidemic. However, before the novel proceeds into its requisite scenes of absurd dystopian calamity, Mandel wisely gives herself an opportunity to demonstrate her penchant for lyricism. Following Arthur’s death, Jeevan wanders out of the theatre and realizes his girlfriend has abandoned him there. The determination that he felt on stage is replaced by ambivalence. He realizes that his hands ache “from compressing Arthur’s unwilling heart” and mortality is certainly on his mind. The night around Jeevan is “dark and filled with movement, snow falling fast and silent, the cars parked on the street swelling into soft outlines of themselves.” Imminent apocalypse never sounded so sweet.
In its genre (which we might call literary dystopia), Station Eleven sits comfortably between the burlesque grit of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and the deliberate melancholy and lyricism of Orwell’s 1984. In a nutshell, this means that the novel approaches its few instances of gore and mayhem rather delicately. The novel is more concerned with finding the elements of humanity that are worth preserving than with fetishizing the death and destruction of apocalypse. With this focus, Station Eleven is fertile ground for allusions that run the gamut from Shakespeare to Star Trek, but Mandel is also careful to craft her own world within the novel.
For example, Station Eleven borrows its title from a series of sci-fi comics authored by Arthur’s first ex-wife, an aspiring artist named Miranda who pours herself into the project as an outlet during their troubled marriage. Two issues of this limited edition comic, called Dr. Eleven, end up surviving the apocalypse in Kirsten’s hands. They are among her precious few possessions as she travels the devastated Great Lakes region. The story of Dr. Eleven quickly develops into one of the novel’s most rewarding subplots, if only for its luscious setting. The comic’s eponymous space station is inhabited by a band of rebels who escape the alien conquest of Earth by piloting their planet-like craft through a wormhole. However, “after fifteen years of perpetual twilight” beneath Station Eleven’s damaged artificial sky, a mutinous faction that lives in the station’s Undersea fallout shelters is ready to surrender to Earth’s alien masters. Mandel’s ability to render the panels of Miranda’s artwork through exposition is particularly impressive:
“The seahorse is a massive rust-colored creature with blank eyes like saucers, half animal, half machine, the blue light of a radio transmitter glowing on the side of its head. Moving silent through the water, beautiful and nightmarish, a human rider from the Undersea astride the curve of its spine.”
Although Miranda models Dr. Eleven after the farcical Spaceman Spiff stories from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, her comic evokes the moodiness and allegorical prowess of 1960s sci-fi novelists like Samuel Delany. Ultimately, there’s more Ballad of Beta-2 than Spaceman Spiff in her comics, and that’s a very good thing for the novel.
In contrast to the slick interstellar setting of Dr. Eleven, the post-apocalyptic landscape that Kirsten wanders is wild. The glimmering technology of human civilization has been lost, presumably forever, and people are once again at nature’s mercy. Thankfully, Kirsten travels as a member of the Symphony, a relatively harmonious and self-sufficient collective of actors and musicians. Over the years, they visit and perform for a circuit of rugged outposts, watching some rise and fall. “The thing with the new world,” according to one Symphony member, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance.” Some of that elegance is preserved when Kirsten performs candlelit scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream wearing a gown she found in the rotting husk of an abandoned house. Through these performances, she and her cohorts reach the higher plane of being they covet. This is how the Symphony lends the novel its ethos.
The leading wagon in the Symphony’s caravan is emblazoned with the motto, “because survival is insufficient,” which is a quote from “Survival Instinct,” the second episode in season six of Star Trek: Voyager. I could offer some tenuous connections between the novel and that episode but, if you’ll pardon the nerdspeak, Station Eleven most profoundly resonates with the ideology of Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets, which is at the center of Star Trek’s post-World War III universe. The Federation represents humanity’s commitment to rise above its ugly history of poverty, war, and fear. With the peak of apocalyptic barbarity behind them, the members of the Symphony have also reevaluated their priorities, deciding that humanity’s highest aspirations are fundamental, not incidental, to the species. Through their perseverance, readers come to appreciate, among other things, the stakes of seemingly ordinary tribulations in the pre-flu world. This feat could admittedly be accomplished without some of the heavy-handedness that comes with the novel’s dystopian territory, but Station Eleven is spellbinding nonetheless.