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: 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.
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.