Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Posted October 19, 2015on:
where I got it: published new
Station Eleven thinks it’s about a woman named Kirsten who survives the apocalypse. But it’s really about those months and years that lead up to the awful events at the end of the world, those specific moments and events that will give Kirsten something to live for and keep looking for later, when she has nothing. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Station Eleven. I certainly didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.
Mandel made a wise choice in telling this story in non-chronological order. If she’d told us the story in the exact order things happen, we’d know the ending right from the start. Things might be a surprise for Kirsten, but they wouldn’t be a surprise for the reader. By giving us bits and pieces that happened now and then, the twists and turns are as equally a surprise for the reader as they are for the characters. Mandel teases all the connections out at just the right pace, with the starkness and sparseness of a placid planet that no longer has electricity or gasoline.
The center of the time line is a theater in snowy Toronto, a few weeks before a flu epidemic sends planet earth back to the dark ages. Kirsten is an eight year old child actress, doing Shakespeare alongside the famous Arthur Leander. As an adult, Kirsten will remember very little of her childhood, but she’ll always remember the night Arthur had a heart attack and died on stage. This is the beginning of the end, in more ways than one. It was especially interesting, that a character who dies in the opening chapter becomes a major character later on. It’s a trick you can pull when telling a story out of order!
Twenty years after the world ends, Kirsten travels with a caravan called the Traveling Symphony. She still performs Shakespeare.
Twenty years before the world ended, Arthur was enjoying the beginnings of fame. He was still in love with his first wife.
As the story moves forward, Arthur’s timeline will rush towards the end of the world. His marriages will fall apart, his career will falter, he’ll wonder where he went so wrong, he’ll feel like he’s just going through the motions. He’ll try to reconcile with his first wife, he’ll lose his father, he’ll become a father, the paparazzi will destroy any possibility of a healthy romantic relationship even though he’s always falling in love again. Arthur never seems satisfied, he’s always looking for more,always looking for the next big thing.
Kirsten is only ever looking for her next meal. The Traveling Symphony lives a sustenance lifestyle, often hunting and gathering food, or trading stage and musical performances for food. Their route takes them through central Michigan, between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan (I loved that this book took place in the state I live in! I want to geographically know where Severn City is. Is it a stand in for Traverse City? Grand Rapids?). The traveling symphony is a huge family, and they’ve got to be. The future isn’t somewhere you can survive alone.
Arthur’s first wife was an artist named Miranda. For much of her adult life, Miranda worked on a graphic novel called Dr. Eleven. A sort of diary of images, the story is complete fantasy, but she puts important moments in her life into the artwork – her ex-boyfriend’s face, an important dinner party, her pet dog. There is a strange, dreamy parallel between the plot of Dr. Eleven, and the plot of the novel. Or, I may have been so engrossed in what was happening, that I imagined the connection. Regardless, it is comforting to think that there was one. Even though Miranda couldn’t have known what was coming when she wrote it.
Kirsten may end up finding all the answers to the questions that were borne in Arthur’s storyline, but I found Arthur’s pre-apocalypse storyline far more interesting than Kirsten’s. He’s got a lot of drama in his life, and as miserable as it made him, I enjoyed reading about his relationships, his letters home, the disastrous press that sometimes surrounded him. Had Station Eleven been nothing but Arthur’s storyline, had the timeline ended with Miranda’s last flight to Asia, I would have enjoyed the book just as much.
Emily St. John Mandel’s prose was just a joy to read. The sparse style she uses matches the atmosphere of the book. There’s not a lot of ornamentation here, nothing more than the fewest possible words to tell the strongest story. It’s like Kirsten’s backpack. When you have to carry everything you own, you make sure you own as little as possible. There’s a starkness to the novel, but a peacefulness too, a freedom of sorts. Quite impressive how Mandel is able to jam so much into so few pages.
Have you noticed that? that post-apocalyptic books are often told in very sparse language? Or at least the good ones are? I was wondering why I kept comparing Station Eleven to McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse and McCarthy’s The Road. All three novels are told in quiet and calm language, as if the characters don’t have energy to spare, or are too exhausted and too hungry to show off. There’s a kind of mountain-top clear-air clarity there.
Post apocalyptic books are often too depressing for me (*waves at Cronin’s The Passage*). I don’t mind darkness in my books, I usually don’t mind unlikeable characters. Station Eleven is probably the most hopeful, most optimistic post-apocalyptic book out there. Even though I now know how it ends, and the mystery is gone, I want to read this book again sometime soon. Doesn’t matter that i know how it ends, reading it was like sitting in front of a beautiful piece of artwork at a museum. Just sitting in front of the painting is enough. I’d like to sit there again.