Novel * Emily St. John Mandel * Pre/Post Superflu * 2014
Well I’m all pissed off now. No, relax, it’s not like that. I’m just working through a bout of writer-envy, that’s all. This goddamn thing is just so lyrically, evocatively, subtly, seemingly effortlessly written – and probably a bunch of other adverbs I can’t even think of right now because I’m not good enough – that I would read through yet another lovely section and then be all like “well, I totally can’t do that!” But then I’d read a little more and the text is so pleasant and soothing I’d forget about my inferiority complex for a little while. Which is good, because the story of Station Eleven really does deserve your utmost attention.
Station Eleven is ostensibly about a flu epidemic that kills like 99% of the population, pretty much exactly as you see in Stephen King’s The Stand. The only real difference is everything. In Station Eleven, the flu is the fulcrum on which the story balances, but it is not the focus. Throughout the novel, Mandel skips back and forth to before and after the epidemic while spending next to no time worrying about the event itself. In fact one of the central characters, Kirsten Raymonde, doesn’t even remember the year following the flu. It’s the apocalypse, but this narrative isn’t terribly interested in it. Instead, Station Eleven is concerned with its characters, living in both the world before the plague and twenty years after the event. Mandel skips around in time pretty much constantly, flitting from character to character, connecting seemingly disparate people across both space and time.
If all this seems a little vague, it’s okay. I was worried at first too. The first scene takes place the eve of the flu outbreak in a theatre during a production of King Lear. When the story shifts to the post-plague present, all the principal characters are members of a travelling symphony/theatre troupe. My immediate instinct was to pull back, like oh lord this is gonna be a total theatre-dork apocalypse and my time is limited here. I ain’t tryin’ to read about a bunch of drama-nerds vamping across the wasteland, you know? My fears were unfounded, however, and it soon became apparent that the theatrical elements are simply the background of these characters and is not the focus. So if we’re keeping track, Station Eleven is about the apocalypse but not really. It’s also about the theatre, but also not really.
Surely the novel is about something? Well if you must be insistent about an easy, back-of-the-book description, fine. It’s about this travelling symphony which travels the post-apocalypse and keeps art alive. The post-plague sections take place some twenty years after the epidemic and ensuing fall of civilization. What’s left of humanity has reconvened and started to live in small settlements. This is not the kind of book that depicts post-civilization as horrific and barbarous, although those kind of things are definitely alluded to. Things have settled down by the time the story takes place. That said, the world is a more dangerous place, as the symphony finds out when they stumble across a dude who calls himself ‘the prophet.’ Whenever you find a guy who identifies as such, you know he’s going to be a problem, and so he is. Meanwhile, the other half of the book follows the unhappy life of a celebrity actor named Arthur Leander and the people who in one way or another were part of his world. So go ahead and read this thing because I’m going to talk all about everything now.
I’m maybe not actually going to talk about everything. Otherwise I’d be here for a while. Also this is the kind of novel that deserves to be reread, and it’ll be quite some time before I circle back to it. For instance, this first time through I was mostly concerned with the characters, with their tenuous connections to one another, and the softer tone of the post-apocalypse. Something I paid very little attention to that I intend to remedy next time: the title. One of the connecting threads Kirsten’s prize possession, which is an indie comic. It’s called, wait for it, Station Eleven. I barely know what any of that’s about, so if you’re waiting for some revelation on that front you’re going to have to come up with it yourself. Clearly it’s important, but whenever Kirsten or Miranda would start talking about it I’d impatiently whip through it because get on with it already.
Instead, I focused on another aspect of the story. This would be the oft-repeated phrase: survival is insufficient. This sentiment is actually tattooed on the body of Kirsten, and is the official slogan of the Travelling Symphony. I especially appreciate the fact that Mandel doesn’t shy away from the Star Trek origin of that phrase. I never got around to watching Voyager, but I may have to remedy that, considering. Anyway, the easy take-away from this is that if survival is insufficient, then art is necessary. Therefore: Hamlet and Beethoven. That point is made right away, with zero subtlety. Yet there’s more to it than just introducing a bunch of travelling musicians and declaring all is well with humanity.
Arthur Leander is a Hollywood guy. At the beginning of the novel, which is the end of his life, he’s washed up. He’s in the midst of divorcing his third wife, his recent movies have all been flops, and now he’s in Toronto playing King Lear in an effort to get back to his acting roots. This is the state of art in the 21st century. As the novel unfolds, we learn a lot about Arthur, as he’s a central character who doesn’t really take part in any of the action. He was raised on a small, isolated island in British Columbia. He escaped and chased his dream and succeeded far beyond his expectations. And Arthur paid the price for success. He learned that not only is art commodified, but so are artists. Eventually, his life became the lifestyle. Arthur leaves his first wife – Miranda, who comes from the same tiny island – for a Hollywood star. He essentially rejects his past for image. The lifestyle then surpasses any semblance of human connection, which is underscored when Miranda attempts to have a human moment with a paparazzo only to have it backfire.
Jeevan, said paparazzo, turns out to be a decent fellow once he ditches the rather odious profession of sneaking candid photographs of vulnerable people. In this instance, Miranda isn’t even the star. Arthur is. However, it’s clear that Miranda is the only actual artist in this entire novel. She created the Station Eleven comic that Kirstin ends up with (through a series of Heart of Gold-level improbabilities), which is by all accounts a work of love and devotion to the creation of art. It’s telling that Arthur never understood why Miranda worked so fervently on her project. For Arthur, art turned into a means to an end. Guys like Jeevan were a nuisance, but a small price to pay for recognition, fame, and money. Now Arthur is a little more complicated than that, and it’s clear that he lived with some regret, but in the end he was only ever a symbol of the 21st century approximation of art and performance.
Meanwhile, in the post-plague future, a minimized humanity has returned to the simpler version of art available to them. I may have taken a shot at the Travelling Symphony when I stated that Miranda is the only true artist of all the presented characters, but that wasn’t intended to be harsh. The thing is, humanity hit the reset button on society. The first thing, insofar as art is concerned, is actually survival. Now the nice thing about a plague is that the works of humanity are by and large left intact (as opposed to, say, a meteor or nuclear war). Outside of isolated disasters caused by lack of supervision, wide swaths of literature and music and the like are still available for use. To allow the active process of art to survive, the things that have gone before must be preserved, appreciated, and understood. That’s what the Travelling Symphony must do. Yes, they act, but they’re performing Shakespeare in order to preserve it. Yes, they play music, but they play symphonies from the 18th century. Nobody is yet at the point where they create original works.
It’s at this point where I realize taking the time to understand Miranda’s comic would have been useful. Whoops! Oh well, next time. For this first reading of Station Eleven, it’s simply enough to enjoy the language, and be at ease with these characters. The tone of this novel is a striking, welcome contrast to the usual tense, violent nature of post-apocalyptic stories. You know that prophet I mentioned early on? Now sure he kills a few members of the Symphony and that’s totes sad or whatever, but the following confrontation ends up feeling like an afterthought. It’s assumed that life is more difficult in the post-apocalypse, but the violence isn’t fetishized here like it is elsewhere in the genre. Instead there is just the rather comforting notion that things will be all right. Hard, but all right. Sometimes that’s enough.