Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Station ElevenThis is a beautiful, elegiac, heartbreakingly sad novel of the post-apocalyptic genre, that transcends the usual preoccupations we have about the End of the World and weaves meditations on fame, regret, culture, and human relationships throughout its 333 elegantly written pages.

The idea — our civilized world disappears with cruel suddenness, leaving a brutal, atavistic proto-society of survivors in its wake — is hardly original; it’s a well recognized trope
by now, a cliché even. It’s a symptom of the zeitgeist, our present anxieties; this is the second novel I’ve read this year in which the destruction wrought by a deadly super-virus is the main plot premise. We feel simultaneously repressed and constricted by our present socio-political world order, and desperately terrified of its sudden collapse.

In some ways Mandel’s treatment of the subject relies on the same treats for the reader as other instances of the genre — oh yes, we get to think, of course they would act that way, of course those technologies would be missed and those others would be easily replaced. But where other post-apocalyptic fables tend to treat the after-disaster world with an almost voyeuristic eagerness — yes, this is all terrible, they seem to say, but wouldn’t it be just a little bit cool to live in the new world where everything is opportunity, where all the structures and calcified inflexibility and ineradicable institutions of the present have been oh so satisfyingly smashed away? — Station Eleven  has none of this.

This is not good, Mandel makes clear about the survival of 1/10th of 1% of the world’s population, and the disappearance of the goods and services that characterize the modern world. There is nothing liberating about this. This is tremendously difficult, traumatic, and crushing. The novel is really a meditation on civilization, all the spectacular interconnected human-built processes that link and power our world; Mandel makes these things, from air travel and iPhones to running water, anesthesia, and law and order, glimpsed in retrospect, appear not oppressive but achingly beautiful. Instead of the individualism that runs deep in post-apocalyptic fantasies — it’s every man for himself now! — Mandel’s core value is the miracle of human interconnectedness, both in personal relationships and social structures.

Not narrated so much as tossed out in random jagged dyschronic shards, the story oscillates between the pre- and post-disaster timeframes, and occasionally wanders into a third, fictive, parallel world: the eponymous Station Eleven comic book drawn by one of the characters. There are characters who live only in the old world and only in the new, and others whose lives span the cataclysmic break. Some, but not all, of the storylines spin in various directions, forward and backward, from a Toronto performance of King Lear on the night when the social fabric begins to disintegrate, so Lear becomes a fourth location visited intermittently, in both the Toronto performance and in the hands of a post-cataclysm traveling theater and music company. Part of the pleasure of the book is making connections between the characters in their various temporal and geographic locations — some of the connections become actual, others remain only potential.

It could have been longer. I have the feeling that there’s a much fuller, more epic version of this novel somewhere in the author’s head, that only a small corner of this imaginary world ended up on the page. The book’s huge geographic scope and large cast of characters seem to prepare the reader for a larger journey than the one eventually taken. One major character — the “Prophet” of an atavistic, menacing postapocalyptic religious cult — seems underdeveloped to me, his relations to the rest of the story cut off where they could have been fruitfully explored, his evil slightly two-dimensional in contrast to the nuanced exploration of other characters’ motivations.

But what’s here is still good. Mandel writes gorgeous prose and graceful dialogue. She’s young too. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more from her.