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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Emily St. John Mandel: "Station Eleven"

Author:  Emily St. John Mandel
Title:  Station Eleven
Plot Type:  Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy     
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf (9/2014) 
     If you are looking for the gory violence of The Walking Dead, the ashy grimness of The Road, or the evil magic of The Stand, you won't find them in Station Eleven. Instead of taking us through the early days of this post-apocalyptic world, Mandel drops us into that world twenty years later and then provides flashbacks to the pre-apocalyptic worldthe good old days. Her story is not about survival as such. She skips over the horrors of the early years and sets her story in Year Twenty of the new world, with flashbacks to the pre-apocalyptic years. As the reviewer for the (London) Guardian says, "Station Eleven is not so much about apocalypse as about memory and loss, nostalgia and learning; the effort of art to deepen our fleeting impressions of the world and bolster our solitude."  

     With its lethal flu pandemic, Mandel's novel hits the market at a time when the fear of Ebola is sweeping the globe. In this novel, the Georgia flu (named after the former Russian state, not the U.S. state) is so powerful that people become symptomatic within hours of infection and die within a day or so. The fatality rate is extremely high, with a survival rate of less than 1%.

     Here two quotations from the novel that concisely set the scene: "There was a flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. " (p. 37)

     "Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn't go out of their way to welcome outsiders." (p. 48) "Into the calm" of Year 20—a time when violence is ebbing and hope is beginning to flow.

     The novel sweeps back and forth in time, portraying the main characters in various stages of their lives (pre-flu and post-flu) and connecting them in ways that are incredibly intricate and mostly unpredictable to the reader. These connections flow naturally as the story line weaves its way between past and present and moves toward a hopeful, but still unresolved, future. 

            THE STORY             
     As the novel opens, Arthur Leander, a famous movie/stage star is struck dead of a heart attack on a Toronto stage during the final act of his performance as King Lear. (Shakespearean plays are a touchstone throughout the novel.) That same night, the Georgia flu makes its way to the U.S. on a plane from Moscow and people begin to die. The primary characters all have a connection with Arthur: Arthur's best friend (Clark); a young girl (Kristen) who plays Lear's daughter in the play; a young paramedic (Jeevan) who attempts to save Arthur's life; and Arthur's three ex-wives, his son, and his current mistress. Then, there are characters connected to this Arthur-centric group, primarily to Kristen, who eventually joins a traveling entertainment caravan that calls itself the Traveling Symphony. "The Traveling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they'd been living, and set out into the unknown landscape." (p. 48) The musicians and actors of the Symphony perform classical symphony concerts and Shakespearean plays as they travel from town to town along the shores of Lakes Huron and Lake Michigan.

     Mandel examines the lives of her characters in eloquent and graceful detail, taking us back to their pre-flu lives and then smoothly moving them forward to the present, two decades after their world changed forever. You will find yourself asking questions: Why does the Prophet's dog have the same name as Miranda's dog (and the dog in the graphic novel)? What is the significance of the  glass paperweight?  Who is "V," to whom Arthur writes a stream of letters over the years? What do Kristen's black knife tattoos symbolize? Why is a limited edition graphic novel so important to the story? Be patient. As you read on, these questions are gradually answered as details begin to accumulate and fit together like puzzle pieces and as we recognize the links that join these characters. For example, the comic book belongs to Kristen, given to her by Arthur, who received it from Miranda—his first wife and the book's author and illustrator. Miranda's graphic novel project reveals parallels between her life, the life of her intergalactic space hero, Dr. Eleven, and the post-apocalyptic world. 

     Some of the most poignant scenes involve the older survivors reminiscing about the good old days when they walked the streets engrossed in their iPhones, ate oranges and drank Pepsi Cola without a second thought, and flew to distant destinations in just hours. The loss of the little things of life are felt most deeply by the first generation of survivors: "An incomplete list: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights…No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars….No more pharmaceuticals.  No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one's hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables….No more fire departments….No more road maintenance…No more social media…No more avatars." (p. 31) First-generation survivors try to explain the Internet to children who were born after technology was long dead, but to the children, television, smart phones, and airplanes are the stuff of fairy tales.

     When the Symphony makes a stop to pick up two members who had dropped off the tour because they were expecting a child, they find no sign of their friends. The town has changed drastically under the rule of newcomers led by the Prophet, a relatively stereotypical cult leader who believes that he is the Light and that he can command any woman (or female child) to become one of his wives. During much of the book, the Symphony is on the retreat from the Prophet and his minions as they head south along Lake Michigan, headed for a former airport, that supposedly has a large population and is home to a museum of artifacts from the pre-flu days: the Museum of Civilization.

     Because Mandel sets this story 20 years after modern civilization ended, we don't see the panic and starvation and struggle that would have occurred during the first years. By now, the next generation is in their late teens. By now, they and their parents have chosen a place to stay and to survive. In contrast to the people of the towns, the Symphony's motto (from Star Trek: Voyager) is "Survival is insufficient." They want more than just hunting and gathering, more than just staying alive. Like the world of Shakespeare's Elizabethan London, the world of Year Twenty has no electricity, running water, telephones, airplanes, or any other technological, industrial, or medical conveniences. Yet in both of these worlds, a core of people held onto the belief that music and story telling represent the best of the past and that they promote the development of people's imaginations and bring hope for the future. 

     I highly recommend this novel for its inventive take on post-apocalyptic fantasy, its multi-layered characters, it smooth ebb and flow between past and present, and Mandel's eloquent use of language. This is a book that looks past the gore and the violence to the everyday lives of people who have coped with death and survived the worst. Although their futures are uncertain, they maintain their respect for the past and their hopes for continued peace and calm in the coming years.

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