Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Sep 4, 2015
The story centers around two unrelated events that happen almost simultaneously: a famous actor dies suddenly of a heart attack while performing the part of King Lear; and the world is all but obliterated by the highly contagious and deadly Georgia flu. Within this framework, the main characters are all linked by some connection to both events.
One of these characters is Kirsten Raymonde. She was eight years old and playing the part of one of King Lear's daughters the night Arthur Leander had a heart attack. She watched him fall, saw a medical crew try unsuccessfully to revive him, and waited for her parents to pick her up from the theater (they never did). Twenty years later, she is part of a group that calls themselves the Traveling Symphony. In a desolate world, they travel between the small settlements of survivors, performing Shakespeare and music and trying to keep some beauty alive.
In one of these settlements, they find a religious cult, led by a man known simply as "the prophet." His words sound peaceable and friendly enough, but Kirsten and the Symphony can sense the underlying danger. They leave the prophet's village as quickly as possible but with disastrous consequences.
One of the few possessions Kirsten owns is a set of two graphic novels given to her by Arthur Leander shortly before he died. They were created by Miranda Carroll, Arthur's first wife, and feature another planet (actually a space station about the size of Earth's moon) known as Station Eleven. When Earth was invaded by enemy aliens, Dr. Eleven took a group of rebels and escaped on Station Eleven into the vast expanse of deep space. Station Eleven is covered almost entirely by water, and most of its inhabitants dwell in the Undersea. Many of them are tired of living meaningless lives in the middle of space. They want to return to Earth.
So there you have a few glimpses of the story: Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony; Arthur Leander; the prophet; and Station Eleven. There are other details and people and events that I haven't mentioned but that nonetheless play critical roles in how the story plays out. It's really incredibly well-crafted: here you have these two seemingly unrelated events--Arthur Leander's untimely death and the unexpected arrival of the Georgia flu--that somehow impact everyone in the story. The one seems minuscule in its scope: one man having a heart attack. The other is vast and far-reaching: 99% of the population is wiped out in a few weeks' time. You would expect the pandemic to completely overshadow Arthur's death. After all, when millions of people die from a disease, is it really memorable or significant that one person died of something so isolated as a heart attack? But somehow it does matter. For me, the juxtaposition of these two events really drove home the idea that the life (and death) of the individual matters.
But while I'm on the subject of the individuals, I will say that the book felt a bit harsh to me . . . almost as if, in the face of such unspeakable tragedy, the characters were each stripped of all emotions and personality. In other words, none of them exhibited the very things that should have made me love them. I don't quite know how to describe it except that I didn't personally make a connection with any of the characters.
I didn't recognize my indifference until two-thirds of the way into the story when one of the characters dies. The other characters are quite shaken up about it (understandably), so I was surprised by my reaction. First I found myself wracking my brain for who exactly this character was, and then I tried to muster up some emotion, but I found myself almost devoid of feeling. I considered the other, more prominent characters and realized that my reactions to them were the same. It wasn't that I disliked them, and it wasn't that I didn't know them. It was just like there was this invisible barrier between us, and I couldn't get close to them on an emotional level. I'm curious if anyone else who's read it felt the same way. I'm not sure if this harshness was intentional, or if it was just my perception.
While I may not have felt a connection with any of the characters, that's not to say that the story didn't prick at my emotions. There were some really haunting images throughout the book. The post-pandemic world that's described is both foreign and eerily familiar. As Kirsten and her friends travel through this wasteland, little details are mentioned--they see a blank television screen or they set up camp in the lawn/garden section of an abandoned Walmart--and you get this weird feeling that things are amiss in your own world. Even after all the other details of this book have faded away from my memory, I don't think I'll ever get the image of the abandoned, gridlocked cars on the freeway out of my head.
There are many books that employ the back and forth timeline: a chapter in the present alternating with a chapter in the past. But the timeline in this book was all over the place. The years leading up to the pandemic and then the twenty years after it were filled in randomly, like pinpoints of light on a grid: Here we got a snippet from fifteen years before the Georgia flu, then seven years before, then six months before. Then we saw a bit of what happened in Year One, Year Two, Year Fifteen. Then back to seven years before, etc. It traveled between characters almost as haphazardly: first to Jeevan, then to Kirsten, then to Arthur, then to Clark, then back to Kirsten. It wasn't predictable, but it felt intentional. It was like coloring in the little squares of a picture: this image gradually started to form, and it was really quite beautiful.
I think the most poignant moment of the story for me, the one that made me pause and think This is the whole point of the book, happened at almost the exact mid-point of the story. A character named Clark (friend of Arthur Leander/survivor of the Georgia flu) is interviewing a woman named Dahlia. This is three weeks before the pandemic, and Clark is still hard at work at a job he doesn't love but doesn't hate: he is hired to improve businesses by diagnosing specific problem areas (usually surrounding the boss). He does this by interviewing various people within the company. On this particular day, he's interviewing Dahlia, who is somewhat skeptical of his approach but is forthright in her answers nonetheless. As she's describing her observations of her boss, Clark starts to feel a little uncomfortable because it seems almost like she's describing him. She says, "I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by vary occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction." She labels people like that "high-functioning sleepwalkers."
And that's it, right there, the point of the book (at least for me). We should not just be going through the motions of life, passing ourselves off as being busy and successful, getting our work done, enjoying the weekend. We should be finding real joy in life--in the people we associate with and the tasks we perform and the leisure we partake in. Even when the world was empty and desolate after the pandemic, those moments could still be found: Kirsten found them while performing the part of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Clark himself eventually found them while sitting quietly in his recliner and looking at his collection of artifacts. Even the comic book story of Station Eleven, which is this binding thread through the whole book, points to this idea as being important--it's not enough just to be safe if you're not progressing and trying to make the world better in a meaningful way. Hopefully, we don't need something so drastic to occur before we'll recognize the good things in life and invest our time in the things that truly matter to us.
Content note: Some foul language (including the f-word) as well as some hints at immorality off-stage.