Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse, celebrity-gazing
 ★    ★    ★    ★    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.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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7 Responses to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I think I agree with you on every point. Beautiful and interesting, but not perfectly satisfied.

    I later read a criticism (Strange Horizons, I think) that in her world of such a tiny population, houses and resources wouldn’t be so totally ransacked. It didn’t occur to me while reading, but it’s very true.

    • thebookgator says:

      Thanks, fromcouchtomoon!
      I think this falls into the LitFic category, quite honestly. The mechanics of the apocalypse are significantly glossed over. Funny, one point I got hung up on was the plan of continuing to use the airport bathrooms, only using dumping extra water to ‘flush’ the toilet. There’s so many things wrong with the logistics of that, I stopped in surprise. Food bothered me as well; although people were hunting/fishing, there didn’t seem to be many active gathering/crop sourcing, which would lead to huge vitamin deficiencies. Now that I think about it, I wonder if that why the most interesting part of the apocalypse was skipped, and the timeline jumped 20 years into the future.

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        That’s exactly what I thought! The beginning with Jeevan preparing for the apocalypse was the most compelling part to me. I wanted to see more of the actual breakdown of society. When it went the way of The Stand/Road formulas, I didn’t exactly lose interest, but I was hoping for something more original.

  2. Stephen Fisher says:

    Just found your site. Love the reviews and agree with most of them. Not Station Eleven. The idea of a traveling symphony bringing art to survivors of an apocalypse is fascinating. Could have been a great story. But that’s not what Station Eleven is about. Instead the reader is treated to a treatise on the relationship threads of a not very interesting actor who died in the first chapter. The only promising bit of suspense in the novel–the disappearance of the Symphony–fizzles entirely when revealed that nothing happened to them; they simply took a different road to Severn City. And the climactic confrontation between Kristen and the Prophet? Resolved in a few sentences with a quick shot to the head. Miranda’s Station Eleven comic book story, for my money would have been far more interesting subject.

    • thebookgator says:

      Thanks, Stephen, for visiting the site! I certainly understand we may differ significantly about Station Eleven. I do agree the climactic confrontation was a ginormous let-down, and quite frankly, didn’t have the storyline to support it happening. Likewise, the detour and reconnection the travelers had when they caught up to the Symphony again (as well as to their friends) To me, it ended up feeling like a literary fiction novel set in the apocalypse, and as such was defying many of the plot-focused genre conventions (this may be my prejudice against litfic talking). In one of the Q&As, Mendel said she often rearranged story bits, adding some at the last minute. It confirmed my feeling that it was about the threads of our lives, how they intertwine, how thoughtless or thoughtful actions can cause consequences later far out of proportion to their intent. In other words, plot was not driving the story. Normally, it is the kind of message that drives me a bit batty, but I did love the writing. It also reminded me a great deal of two summers I spent working at a remote camp, so I’m likely predisposed to appreciate it.

  3. Stephen Fisher says:

    Thanks for the reply. If you like literary fiction, I recommend Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Very interesting and challenging. My Good Reads review is here:

  4. Pingback: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn | book reviews forevermore

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