I was going to post this Monday, but I fell ill with a not-so-mysterious virus called a sinus cold. It just so happens the book I’m reviewing today is all about flu epidemics, human extinction, some theater, and survival.
Nominated for several awards, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven caught a lot of attention last year. Almost every newspaper and magazine was praising it as one of the best books of 2014. It was a novel no one could stop talking about and for good reason. Eleven is a spectacular and radiant post-apocalyptic novel with every page persuading you to stay up well passed your bedtime. You’ll be glued till the end.
Eleven begins just as the world is ending. Arthur Leander is brilliantly performing the role of King Lear in a theatrical production of King Lear when he suddenly collapses on stage. Minutes later, he’s dead. A former journalist/photographer training to be a paramedic, Jeevan, sticks around only to receive a frantic call from his friend at the hospital. Jeevan learns of the Georgian Flu, which has reached the United States and is rapidly spreading. His friend tells him to leave the city immediately, thus, launching the story into crisis mode. Then the story skips to twenty years later after the Collapse. Among the one percent who have survived is a young woman named Kirsten Raymonde who belongs to a group called the Traveling Symphony. Their main purpose is to travel to towns performing Shakespearian plays; however, life in this new world isn’t any easier than life before the Collapse.
Eleven takes a different approach in telling a post-apocalyptic novel. Mandel writes a story about living rather than merely surviving, as “survival is insufficient.” Contrary to post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels/films universally depicting characters enduring a harsh reality and/or society, Mandel subverts this concept. Eleven’s emphasis on a group called the Traveling Symphony is one of the aspects that speaks loudest. Actors, actresses, and musicians travel town to town performing Shakespearian plays to the people, not only as a form of entertainment, but it’s an outlet for the performers themselves. Before the flu epidemic hits, most of them were in the performing arts field. Eleven argues finding salvation in art. The world they knew ended, but it doesn’t mean life has to.
The characters’ narrations are interspersed throughout the novel with a series of flashbacks. The accumulation of these narratives are fantastic. Surprisingly the characters in Eleven are virtually unfazed or unaffected by the collapse of civilization. Kirsten Raymonde’s memory of the world before is blurry, but it makes sense why she doesn’t remember a lot. She was young, and, more than likely, the trauma incurred in the first year of the Collapse caused her to repress most of what happened. Everyone else who survived seems to have made the transition without any difficulty—like they’ve been accustomed to foraging and cultivating all their lives.
As much as I enjoyed reading about the characters and piecing together the connection between them, it’s hard to believe the dissolution of the government didn’t further decay morality among the survivors. If nothing else, the Collapse seems to have fortified it, giving people the chance to join together out of compassion and not simply survival. After twenty years, however, there’s more of inclination to travel with a group while these groups are more cautious about who they let in. The unification is idyllic, but I can’t help but wonder what happened to all the bad seeds in the world. What a coincidence that all the villainous people in the world have succumb to this mysterious illness.
The one prominent antagonist, a prophet who’s the result of the new world’s anarchic system, contrives his biblical status . . . somehow. It’s not explained entirely how a young boy took the reins and became a messiah-like figure. We are supposed to believe and try to make sense of this world because when you think about it and really put yourself in that scenario where everyone except you is wiped out by an unknown disease, you’re left wondering: why them and not me? Mandel translates human desperation and suspension of reasons beautifully, although there are questions as to how some things unfolded.
The one character who stands out the most in the novel, the axle rotating the story, is Arthur Leander. All the characters share some kind of connection with him, when he’s an ordinary man whose life is in disarray with three ex-wives, an estrange son, and a dying Hollywood career. But Mandel doesn’t convey him as a tragic character, although some might argue that he is. Leander surprises us by being more than a rags-to-riches, narcissistic charmer. His capacity to emphasize with others while not fully understanding them is what makes some of these characters think of him often. Some knew him intimately while others met with him only for a few minutes. Even during brief encounters with Leander, his influence is profound and captivating.
I have yet to read any of Mandel’s previous works, but this novel convinces me that I need to. The writing marvelously achieves the best of the post-apocalyptic genre and more. Mandel smoothly blends the complexities of her characters with a new but familiar world with proficient writing. Although the genre has received a fair amount of attention lately, Eleven is an example of a novel exceeding expectations of its own genre. Eleven’s ending is a testament to the survival and perseverance of humans and their legacy.