The Book We're Talking About: 'Station Eleven' By Emily St. John Mandel

The Book We're Talking About

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, $24.95
Published September 9, 2014

What we think:
After an efficient strain of the flu wipes out civilization in a handful of days (fevers, air travel, overcrowded hospitals, clogged highways, silence), the survivors, mostly huddled into small “cities” of 100 people or less, face struggles similar to those they encountered pre-apocalypse: In addition to warding off predators, they squabble over living spaces, question their children's' education and debate the quality of different artistic mediums.

This is the power of dystopian stories, which remain all the rage this year: They shed light not only on our present anxieties about humanity’s collapse, but on how people act when they’re placed, more or less, in a vacuum. Emily St. John Mandel’s take, in her fourth novel Station Eleven, is mostly an optimistic one: While some communities devolve into cults with overbearing leaders, she alludes to the idea that most of these troubled societies developed this way out of fear, and possibly even as a response to trauma.

Aside from these threatening outliers, Mandel’s characters -- she follows a diverse and sometimes interconnected cast before and after the Georgia Flu -- are well-meaning proponents of the arts. One swells with pride when he thinks of his makeshift newspaper, which he delivers to surrounding colonies; another is a thrice divorced Hollywood-star-turned stage actor who plays Lear in an odd rendition; another, Kirsten, was eight when the pandemic hit, and finds a home in a traveling symphony that performs mostly Shakespeare.

While Kirsten enjoys her role in the symphony (alluding to the crew’s close quarters, one member quips that “hell is other people,” and she later disagrees, saying hell is longing for the people you love), the members don’t always agree on the performances they choose. After over a decade of touring Michigan’s upper peninsula, often encountering dangerous rogues while raiding abandoned homes, they find that audiences tend to prefer Shakespeare to more contemporary hits -- in hard times, people want to experience the best the old world had to offer. Still, some speak out: A clarinet player with a penchant for experimental German theatre attempts to pen her own play, and Kirsten’s friend August endorses the symphony’s slogan, disputed by others as lowbrow because it was taken from an episode of Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.”

The conversations between the performers about which surviving works matter -- which are evocative, which need preserving, which do audiences enjoy -- are among the strongest passages in the book. Kirsten collects gossip magazine clippings and pages from a comic, Station Eleven, that closely mirrors society’s present predicament -- a manmade planet where it’s nearly always dark or twilight is divided by straggling citizens who either wish to stay or return to their overtaken home. Although the comic was a vanity project created by another character who dies during the pandemic, it resonates with survivors more than any other story seems to.

Mandel spends a disproportionate number of pages marveling at the wonders of the modern world: cell phone communication, transportation, and nearly an entire chapter devoted to the multi-faceted process of assembling a snow globe. While these observations can seem a bit juvenile, and can disrupt the flow of the story, they’re seem true to her characters’ mindsets, which are admirably positive given the circumstances.

What other reviewers think:
The New York Times: "Yet, ultimately, Station Eleven isn’t very tough. And its biggest scares come early, without much follow-through. No doubt the author’s lack of interest in eliciting conventional responses helps explain her National Book Award nomination, but this is not one of the year’s bolder or more soul-plumbing books. Pandemics ought to be a little less pleasant."

Entertainment Weekly: "One of her great feats is that the story feels spun rather than plotted, with seamless shifts in time and characters."

The Guardian: "In her much-tipped fourth novel, longlisted last week for a US National Book award, Canadian author Emily St John Mandel makes something subtle and unusual out of elements that have become garishly overfamiliar."

Who wrote it?
Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel. She was born in British Columbia, Canada, and studied dance in Toronto. She's a staff writer for The Millions.

Who will read it?
Fans of dystopian stories, speculative fiction, and stories with strong female protagonists.

Opening lines:
"The king stood in the blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear's daughters, and now they'd returned as hallucinations in the mad scene."

Notable passage:
"August said that given an infinite number of parallel universes, there had to be one where there had been no pandemic and he'd grown up to be a physicist as planned, or one where there had been a pandemic but the virus had had a subtly different genetic structure, some minuscule variance that rendered it survivable, in any case a universe in which civilization hadn't been so brutally interrupted."

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