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A Year of Reading, Week 26: Station Eleven

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

If 99.999% of the human population on earth were to perish in a superflu pandemic and you somehow, miraculously, managed to survive, what would you miss the most? Chocolate chip cookies? Air travel? Shakespeare in the park? Your laptop? iPhone? Uh… your family?

I know, it sounds like we’ve been down this road before – Seth likes a book about a global flu pandemic that leaves a sliver of humanity as stewards of the planet. But Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Station Eleven (on-sale September 9) is right in Dog Stars territory, I’m tellin’ you. That good.

There’s one of those “notes from the editor” letters in the front of the galley I have – most advance reading copies have these things & I rarely pay any attention. But this actually made comparisons to the aforementioned Dog Stars, as well as the holiest-of-holy’s, ye olde Cloud Atlas. Oh really, dear editor?

Arthur, Jeevan, Kirsten, Clark, and Miranda are our primary players in this post-apocalyptic drama. Arthur Leander, famous actor, drops dead on page 2, but definitely remains the central figure – his actions throughout his life informed the lives of the others as a sort of butterfly effect. Within a few hours of Arthur’s death – a heart attack, perhaps, while performing the lead role in King Lear – the devastating Georgian Flu begins coursing across North America, taking the vast majority of humanity with it. Mandel punctuates this sobering fact absolutely chillingly, perfectly, within the first few pages. When Arthur dies at this theater in Toronto, the city is on the cusp of a massive snowstorm and in the sad immediate aftermath of Arthur’s demise, his fellow actors and a handful of theater people gather in the theater bar as the snow begins to fall to talk about Arthur. Who should we call? Did he have any close family? (A sad fact in itself, considering his celebrity.) Gossip about his divorces, his young son, a toast to the man – we are lulled into a sense of ease, settling into this story about Arthur. Then this, to close the chapter:

Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.

Oh shit.

This isn’t really about Arthur at all! It’s about this horrible pandemic! We’re all doomed!

Remain calm. The novel moves forward and back in time, filling in the gaps in the life stories of these five people – and gradually revealing the connective threads between them all. Clark is Arthur’s oldest friend; Miranda was his first wife; Jeevan (among several David Mitchell-worthy connections) was the first person to rush from the audience when Arthur collapsed on stage; and Kirsten was an 8-year-old actress in the play that fateful night, but survived the flu and reappears as part of a traveling group of actors and musicians 20 years after the end of civilization. She was young enough – and seemingly traumatized enough by the pandemic aftermath itself – that she doesn’t remember much of the old world, filled with electric light and modern convenience. The world of this future is not as violent and horrifying as many post-apocalypse novels may be. Certainly not as terrifying as some of the things Hig does to survive in The Dog Stars – and we definitely see nothing like a Cormac McCarthy baby-barbecue in this. Really the plague was so all-inclusive that there just aren’t enough people left and the ones who survived seem to just want to live in peace. There are actually two factions of people living in this post-flu world – those that remember how good we had it and those who don’t. 

And that seems to be an underlying theme to this: we do have it pretty good right now, at this particular point in human history. Many of us in the world are comfortable and have every creature comfort we could ever imagine, yet we take it all for granted on a daily basis. 

I can’t believe my cell phone just dropped that call. 
This traffic jam is ridiculous. 
How is this international flight delayed right now?
Ugh, I’m out of coffee.

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ballgames played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.

What would life be like if it were all torn from our grasp in an instant? What if everyone you knew was gone in a month’s time? Literally everyone. What would become important to you in light of that? 

That right there is what this magnificent, lyrical novel is about – recognizing that actual human connection is the most important element to human life. (There’s that Cloud Atlas similarity.) We are nothing without each other – just animals roaming the wasteland, muttering to ourselves. Arthur serves as the lynchpin connecting the lives of these other people, but only peripherally. I think, more than anything, with his celebrity status in the pre-apocalypse world, Arthur shows us how inconsequential and truly fleeting fame really is and that there is much more below the surface of the things we deem important or worthy in our current world. Once all the trappings of modernity are stripped away, what is left?

The Dog Stars, The Son, Everything Matters!, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Jacob de ZoetStation Eleven is firmly in the company of some of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Above some, even. Mandel’s prose is fluid, emotive, and airy – yet there is a palpable tension to everything, hanging over every conversation, every act. (See previous references to a global pandemic and massive loss of human life.) But the thing is, I was never in doubt that this was the way we would behave if faced with the terrible reality of such a devastating collapse of human life. Tense, yes, of course, but it seemed a much more optimistic – and frankly, refreshing – view of a potential post-apocalyptic world. We regroup, we refocus, we reevaluate – and we move on and try to make the world worth living, however we can. Hey, as long as we’ve got each other – whoever we are, whatever we’re left with – I’m okay with that.

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2014 by in Emily St. John Mandel, review, Station Eleven, year of reading.
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