Written by Vicki DeArmon
Starting a book is like starting a love affair, so it most definitely matters what book it is. I picked up Station Eleven before it became listed on the National Book Awards long list and immediately, and irrevocably, fell in love. The other twenty novels stacked on my bed stand faded away as I tumbled into Station Eleven and could not extricate myself.
Dystopian novels are now a vast genre and the outlandish made grittily real is often how we judge them—the more horror in a sense, the better.
Station Eleven sidesteps this mandate, delivering a story that is uplifting as it travels through multiple characters’ lives before and after the collapse of civilization as we know it. We recognize our world when a flu virus wipes out the majority of the population which in turn collapses the systems we rely on: access to transportation, electricity, the internet, and electronics of all sorts. This collapse bleeds out into a likely dystopian future where the surviving one percent of the population, after roving for years, finally settles. In Mandel’s words, “civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns.”
Yet all this is not the heart of the story, but the backdrop, the reasons why our characters make the choices they must make. There’s none of the preemptive racing for the next horror in this book, but rather an almost idyllic and magical suspension of time. The novel traverses the twenty years since the collapse to flashbacks in the previous world.
The story focuses on the essence of art and its importance in a well-lived life through a band of Shakespearean actors and symphony musicians who travel from hamlet to hamlet along Lakes Huron and Michigan to conduct performances for the scattered outposts of humanity. Why Shakespeare? A character concedes, “People want what is best about the world.” And like a salve for the human soul, Shakespeare’s plays persist, as they once returned to the stage following the devastating plague of 16th century England, and in Station Eleven’s pandemic. One of the tents of the Traveling Symphony bears the inscription, “Because Survival Is Insufficient,” challenging the notions of most dystopian novels yet again.
The novel starts with Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor, who suffers a heart attack while playing King Lear just before the collapse. Leander is a metaphor of the collapse, serving as a testimony to all that raged in the pre-collapsed world including excess, fame, money, divorce, superficiality, and the quest for meaning. The other characters’ stories radiate out from Arthur, all who link to him in some way: his ex-wife, his fellow actor, a paparazzo, his friend, and his son. These links provide a web of connection throughout the novel that is mysterious and surprising.
But it’s not about the impact of a person such as Arthur Leander in the post collapse world, but rather the surviving bits of him as artifacts or memory, that wind through the novel, now infused with meaning by the survivors. For instance, there is Kirsten, the child actress who played along side Leander in King Lear, now in Year Twenty performing Titania from Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Traveling Symphony. She has from Arthur a gift of two treasured comic books that sustain her spirit. The book’s title comes from these comic books which were created in the pre-collapsed world by Leander’s ex-wife who drew a space station resembling a small planet called “Station Eleven” and gave her character, Dr. Eleven, the words, “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” This novel resonates with such echoes.
The novel ties brilliantly together in an uplifting end that claims art as the beacon when all else fails. This is not utopia. There are people who are violent and damning as the main characters confront them in this new world. Yet each protagonist persists in his or her view that art and fellowship are the preferred way. The preciousness of life is found on a small scale, beautifully written, with characters who are deeply compelling. This novel is a tribute to the goodness of people rather than a descent into all that is wrong with them when the worst happens. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Mandel’s previous work includes Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet. Station Eleven is being hailed as the breakout novel that introduces her for the first time to a wider community of readers. Read more: http://www.emilymandel.com/
Book review written by Vicki DeArmon, Marketing & Events Director, Copperfield’s Books, Seven stores in San Francisco’s North Bay