Welcome to the January/February pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
My two cents:
It’s always such a terrific gift when a book surprises you in all the right ways. Such was the case for me with Station Eleven. I’d seen some reviews, I’d seen it on many of the “Best of” lists for 2014, and I’d heard the hype. At the same time, the initial synopses I’d read all focused on a traveling Shakespeare company in a post-apocalyptic world. For whatever reason, I assumed the Shakespearean framework would shape the entire novel, so that we’d follow the company from settlement to settlement, seeing their performances and making some sort of symbolic connection between the classic plays and the new world.
It was really a thrill for me to discover that Station Eleven is so much more. Station Eleven takes a truly frightening tale of a global pandemic that kills off most of humanity, and weaves into it a story about human connection, random meaning, and the elusive nature of relationships.
The Georgia flu wipes out human life on Earth almost instantly. In this age of international travel, we’re all only one contaminated airline passenger away from disaster, and Station Eleven lets the pandemic play out to its awful, inevitable conclusion. The narrative of the novel jumps in time between the outbreak of the pandemic, the path of the Traveling Symphony twenty years later, and the earlier history of Arthur Leander, possibly the last man on Earth to attract attention for his death prior to the catastrophe.
It’s hard to explain just what’s so wonderful about Station Eleven. The plotting is elegant, with connections between characters and events that only become apparent later on. The descriptions of the post-apocalyptic world are chilling, and yet the mixed sense of wonder and boredom that the new generations feel toward old stuff (electronics, phones, and all the other pieces of our technology that twenty years later are dusty museum pieces) is almost funny to read about, with a hint of the bittersweet as well. The writer is able to convey a sense of nostalgia for our own times by showing how little so much of what we have now will matter later on. There’s horror for the death and destruction, as well as an edge of mystery as we try to see just how all the different story threads are intertwined.
Above all, Station Eleven is filled with beautiful writing.
Miranda opened her eyes in time to see the sunrise. A wash of violent color, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and the water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo sea. The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.
In little moments, we see the awe-inspiring vision of a world without people and what the death of our civilization might look like. No alien invasion, no nuclear war, no second ice age — just a disease working its deadly way through the entire population of the planet over the course of a few short weeks.
Despite the end of life as we know it, life goes on, and the book seems to emphasize above all the way the people’s lives, woven together, form something that’s greater than just the individual. There’s still hope and beauty, and those who understand that are the ones who manage to keep hold of an idea of a future that means something. Station Eleven is sad and gorgeous and, oddly, not depressing. There’s a strange sense of nobility and purpose folded into the survivors’ determination to keep going, to remember, and to grow again.
If you like your post-apocalyptic novels full of explosions, zombies, and mayhem, this may not be the book for you. But if you appreciate a more thoughtful approach to matters of connection and survival and what it means to be human, definitely give Station Eleven a try.
The Fields & Fantasies chat:
I’ll add a link to Diana’s review shortly. Meanwhile — a Q&A between Diana and me.
Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!
Lisa: Did Station Eleven match your expectations?
Diana: I think so. I don’t think I was expecting a whole heck of a lot but I heard that this book was pretty good and I think it lives up to my basic expectations.
Lisa: Did any images from the post-apocalyptic world make a big impression? What sorts of thing really stand out for you?
Diana: Just the way that everything seemed to be so Mad Max-esque with just a touch of Walking Dead. Did you find the premise to be believable?
Lisa: I really did! We have so many health-crisis scares and the media seems to really overreact… and yet, I think it’s really plausible that if there were a bad enough virus, like the flu in Station Eleven, there’s nothing to stop it from spreading globally within days or weeks. The speed of the pandemic in this book was really scary. I loved the descriptions of the world afterward, how quickly everything reverts back to nature and the people become nomads and survivalists.
Lisa: Who were your favorite characters, and why?
Diana: I really loved Kirsten. I liked how resilient she was and how much she loved Shakespeare. She had that good combination of being able to kick ass but yet was still personable. I also really liked Jeevan but I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get a whole lot of time with him.
Lisa: I loved those two too! I also really liked Miranda — I just found her story so sad, a poor girl who never fit in with the life she ended up with, who spent her whole life working on a comic book that almost no one ever saw. (And which I wish I could see! It sounded amazing.) Also, Arthur’s friend Clark was very cool and understated.
Lisa: Which storylines were you most interested in?
Diana: All of them. She does this wonderful job of starting us at one point spreading out to other various points then bringing it back around into one fantastic place. Was there a storyline that you really liked or that you weren’t too fond of?
Lisa: I thought the whole idea of people stranded at an airport and just staying there for another twenty years was really inventive! I was so entertained by that concept and all the details the author provided to make it feel so real. I wasn’t crazy about the prophet storyline — I didn’t actually think the story needed it, other than for the dramatic element of danger.
Lisa: Were there any storylines or plot points that you thought were unnecessary or less interesting?
Diana: There wasn’t one that i didn’t like but I would have liked to see more with Jeevan. I really really liked the character but i feel like his story just wasn’t in there enough.
Lisa: What else would you want to know about the world of the future, as portrayed in Station Eleven?
Diana: Were the people who survived just immune to the virus or did they just get lucky enough to not get it. Is there any major attempt to regain civilization. Also did any of the other greats survive?
Lisa: Very good question — was there a reason that the survivors were immune, or did they just not to encounter the virus? I wonder. And we’re left hanging a bit at the end, with the possibility that there could be a return to some of what was lost.
Lisa: How would you describe Station Eleven to someone who hasn’t read it yet?
Diana: It’s far more intellectual than i thought it would be. It’s also more of a drama about the human spirit.
And that wraps it up! Thanks, Diana! It’s a pleasure talking books with you! Let’s do this again next month…
Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Length: 333 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Next for Fields & Fantasies:
Our April book will be Bossypants by Tina Fey.