Olivia is a freelance content writer and a reading enthusiast.
It Starts With an Unusual Night at the Theater
Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, Station Eleven, published in 2014, starts with an unforgettable night at the theater.
The instant impression is that of following a thrilling, fine-crafted story, similar to that in a TV series. With a clear and balanced voice, Emily introduces the setting and the characters. The way her writing focuses on one character than on another one in a large cast rapidly creates an engaging, familiar world.
We meet Kirsten Raymonde who, in the dramatic scene opening the novel, is a child actor playing one of King Lear's daughters. Somewhat neglected by parents who are rather more interested in being her managers, Kirsten spends much of her time at the theater. She's closer to Arthur Leander, the actor in the leading role, a superstar, than to them.
Unfortunately, the night when "King Lear" plays in Toronto, Arthur dies onstage. This is when we're also introduced to Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic trainee and former paparazzi, who tries in vain to revive him.
The same night the flu pandemic strikes the world's population, starting its destruction. The following quote expresses how Miranda Carroll, Arthur's ex-wife, perceives this new world.
20 Years After The World's Destruction
We reunite with Kirsten when she is a woman in her 20s, an actress with the "Traveling Symphony." The Symphony is a group of actors and musicians who journeys from one settlement to the next in a post-pandemic America.
We are following them 20 years after the world stopped functioning after the Georgia flu killed 99,6% of the population.
These artists and the remaining population adapted to the lack of resources, lack of civilization, and violence. They live in new ways without electricity and in disparate settlements.
"Hell is other people," wrote Jean-Paule Sartre in the play "No Exit," but in this post-pandemic world, immeasurable pain has other dimensions.
The Pre-Pandemic World Is Recovered Through Art
Unseen threads connect all the characters:
- Arthur Leander was the most significant influence in young Kirsten's life
- Jeevan Chaudhary influenced Arthur's life
- They both changed Miranda Carroll's life
- Miranda's comic book 'Dr. Eleven', shaped Kirsten when growing up
The unwinding of this ball of connections is Station Eleven's body. The narrative moves back and forth from Kirsten, and her current extended family, to familiar characters from the past, their lives, and their struggles.
If that is the body, Station Eleven's soul has to be the world seen and recovered through art. The "Traveling Symphony" plays only Shakespearean theater, sings, tries to retrieve members it left behind, and gathers pieces of a former world. Quotes from Sartre and 'Star Trek:' "Survival is insufficient," are their motto. And Dr. Eleven's two volumes define Kirsten's life as they define Miranda's. In the pre-pandemic world, this is what Miranda said when asked about her creative process:
Youth Adventures and a Lady's View of the World
However, Station Eleven is also a hip novel.
In one of the settlements, the “Symphony” encounters a prophet, one of the many existing in the new world.
This meeting will be a violent one and his link to Kirsten's life will be randomly deep: After they passed through the prophet's settlement and a child he wanted as his wife ran away with them, members of the “Traveling Symphony” start disappearing.
Yet, what is perhaps the prophet's stealth mastery can be confusing to the reader. Could it be that this is a supernatural occurrence? Who knows what happens in this new world.
In a nutshell, the book also offers adventures, fights, and love plots, but placed somewhere in the background, somehow necessary in a world supposed to be violent. The fact that they are serving a purpose renders them not completely satisfactory.
These are young people's adventures mixed with a lady's (Miranda's in 'Dr. Eleven') view of the world. In the former world, when Arthur Leander met a colleague they contemplated in disbelief each other's features, as you can read in the passage below. But, in the post-pandemic world, aging is no longer a burden but a privilege.
Random, Lost, Profound Connections
The writing is memorable in its details.
Lost thoughts, lost remarks, haphazard inquiries in someone's lost life and pain. I wish Station Eleven could be just that: random, lost, profound connections, with no attempt at visibility.
At the heart of the novel, there is a perceivable philosophy but no major mysteries. Behind the world, the breathing, pulsating world, there should be an ocean of connections and truths that are, somehow, hard to decipher.
This book will, most probably, adapt into a successful mini series, but I shouldn't have felt that this goal exists.
Science fiction and dystopia meet the American metropolitan way of life, in a novel that is clean and enjoyable, easy to appreciate or admire, but difficult to believe and trust.
The secrets it guards offer explanations but are not world-building. In a novel about world change, that is difficult to understand.
Emily St. John Mandel discusses Station Eleven
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Olivia Mills