★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
“One of the great scientific questions of Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now. The era of light pollution had come to an end. The increasing brilliance meant the grid was falling, darkness pooling over the earth. I was here for the end of electricity.“
Full of beautiful language and vivid imagery, Station Eleven is a Shakespeare play in novel form. Like a theater performance, it is a bit self-conscious, a bit dramatic; it comes complete with character soliloquies and a complicated chain of coincidences woven together at the end. Mind you, that isn’t a negative criticism: I trek out to American Players Theater for a Shakespeare play under the stars every summer. There’s just many moments where the story seems staged, a carefully selected tableau of character and action. I liked Station Eleven a great deal, finishing it in two sittings (that the time reading was weeks apart in no way reflects on the book. It was from my desire to give full attention to the story and an obligation to read fifteen chapters of Community/Public Health Nursing).
The story begins with a performance of King Lear. Lead actor Arthur collapses on stage and a member of the audience, Jeevan, fruitlessly attempts CPR while the cast looks on. The narrative begins to hint that things are about to change for everyone, commenting as the cast processes Arthur’s tragedy that in three weeks the majority of them will be dead.
“The snow was falling faster now. He felt extravagantly, guiltily alive. The unfairness of it, his heart pumping faultlessly while somewhere Arthur lay cold and still.“
Narration shifts from Arthur’s death scene to Jeevan walking home and then on to Arthur’s now-ex-wife Miranda. From there, it will leap forward to the future, twenty years after the ‘Georgia flu’ has decimated the world’s population. In the future, we largely follow Kirsten, a member of The Traveling Symphony, a theater and orchestra troupe. The story continues moving gently between Arthur’s past and Kirsten’s present, occasionally dipping into the moments around the influenza outbreak and the struggle afterwards.
“…and this collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour. But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy”
One of the motifs of the book is the grief survivors have over loss of industrialized society. There’s a curious parallel embedded within the story, through a graphic novel Miranda is creating, called “Station Eleven.” Interestingly, although St. John Mandel is not planning a sequel to the book, she is writing the text for a Station Eleven comic (author Q&A).
“On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.”
For me, the characters and plotting that rested on Arthur’s social network felt more than a bit constructed. Quite possibly, the elaborate links weren’t worth the payoff. Possibly, they were, again lending the story a Shakespeare-like feel. Hard to decide, but I revised my opinion of St. John Mandel’s writing upwards when I learned additional scenes surrounding Jeevan were included at the request of the editor/publisher (see Q&A link).
I’m also not sure how I feel about the mix of character viewpoints and how they move through time. In some cases the result was interesting; a series of beautifully written character studies. In other cases, I was conscious of feeling “this is going to lead to something” instead of an intrinsic interest in the scene. To further compound the pacing issue, after a long, languorous build is a very rapid denouement and conclusion. The result feels a little less than satisfying.
Overall, though, it is a lovely book, filled with beautiful language, vivid scenes and insightful social commentary that feels more like literary fiction than science-fiction. And as a bonus for those who prefer not to dabble in the apocalypse genre, it presents a more hopeful version of a world post devastation.