I know what you are thinking, "Another post-apocalyptic novel? Please, no." And usually, I'm with you. I have dystopian future fatigue, too.
I've heard that every novelist should be allowed one novel of cataclysmic decline, but that tends to be the one novel I skip. For instance, I've read everything by Denis Johnson, except Fiskadoro. I'm blown away by Cormac McCarthy, but can't bring myself to pick up The Road.
But when a reader friend sang the praises of Station Eleven (Knopf) -- Emily St. John Mandel's novel about a traveling Shakespearean theater troupe and symphony roaming a doomsday North America 20 years after a flu pandemic has killed 99.9% of the world's population -- I couldn't resist. Here are reasons you should read it, too, and some things you might learn.
1. It'll make you marvel at the world as we know it. In the world of Station Eleven, planes no longer fly, cars no longer drive. Humans no longer have running water, electricity, the Internet. The characters' longing for the sound of electric guitars, cool air blowing from a vent, and the miracle of flight will remind you of how amazing the world we live in truly is.
2. You'll be happy you aren't invited to Hollywood dinner parties. The novel moves back and forth between the pre and post flu pandemic worlds. In the pre-pandemic world, a stilted scene at a Hollywood dinner party full of philandering actors and pretentious L.A. types who call Prague "Praha" would make most anyone happy not to be invited to such affairs.
3. It shows losing everything can be a blessing. Jeevan, a character who in the pre-pandemic world works to leave behind his unfulfilling job as a paparazzi, finds in the doomsday world a chance to do valuable work.
4. It'll remind you the people who drive you the most crazy are perhaps also the ones you don't want to live without. The members of The Traveling Symphony "lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour." Because they cannot escape each other they become a "collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments," which drives one of them to write "'Sartre: Hell is other people" in pen inside one of the caravans. But when three members of The Traveling Symphony disappear without a trace, the others realize just how much they mean to each other.
5. Making art for art's sake is a worthy endeavor. Before the apocalypse, a young woman named Miranda marries Arthur, a famous actor. Arthur's friends find Miranda strange -- while she spends all her time working on a series of comic books, she has no interest in publishing them. But unlike Arthur, who can't ever seem to stop performing, Miranda has no desire for acclaim or even an audience. Instead, she finds solace and happiness in the work of drawing, writing, and imagining her comic book series, reminding the reader that sometimes there's nothing better than the act of creating -- regardless of whether or not anyone ever sees the resulting work.
6. There's no telling what art will survive the apocalypse. Though Miranda only self-publishes 10 copies of her first two comic books, her comics survive the flu pandemic, are beloved, and have an inordinate impact.
7. Who wouldn't want to read about a post-apocalyptic traveling Shakespearean theater company and symphony armed with knives? It's pleasing to think that even if only a few humans survive, so will Shakespeare's works. And that if there is an apocalypse, a pampered child actress could grow into a woman who could not only play Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but could also slay an attacker with the expert throw of a knife. It's also somehow comforting that no matter how dire conditions become on this earth, there will be people who will risk their lives to bring art to others, because, as it says on The Traveling Symphony's caravan, "Survival is insufficient."