Emily St. John Mandel is a contemporary Canadian author living in the United States. In “Station Eleven”, her fourth and latest novel (published in 2014), she starts, with calm and paced language, by describing an unusual night at the theater. The instant impression is that of watching a thrilling, fine-crafted TV series: how the author introduces the setting and the characters, the way the writing focuses on one character next another one in a large cast, induces a perception of movement, action and familiarity.
In this novel a woman in her 20s, an actress in the “Traveling Symphony”, journeys from one settlement to the next in a post-pandemic America, 20 years after the world stopped functioning, after the Georgia flu killed 99,6% of the population. Therefore the remaining people survive without electricity, in new, adapted ways, in disparate settlements. They broke through lack of resources, lack of civilization and violence.
The young woman is Kirsten Raymonde, who in the dramatic scene opening the novel is a child actor playing one of King Lear’s daughters. Somewhat neglected by her parents, that promote her as an actress, Kirsten spends much of her time at the theater. That night, when “King Lear” plays in Toronto, the actor in the main role, Arthur Leander, a superstar, but also her friend, dies onstage. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzi, current paramedic trainee, tries in vain to save him, and the same night the flu strikes the world, starting its destruction.
There are threads connecting all the characters: Arthur Leander was the biggest influence in young Kirsten’s life, Jeevan Chaudhary had an influence on his, they both changed Miranda Carroll’s, author of the comic book “Dr. Eleven”, book that Kirsten ends growing up with. The unwinding of this ball of threads is “Station Eleven”‘s body. The narrative moves back and forth from Kirsten and her current extended family to familiar characters from the past, their lives and struggles.
If that is the body, “Station Eleven”s soul has to be the world seen through art and recuperated by art. The “Traveling Symphony” plays only Shakespearean theater, sings and tries to retrieve members it left and to gather pieces of a former world. Quotes from Sartre: “Hell is other people” and from “Star Trek”: “Survival is insufficient” are their motto. Furthermore the two volumes of “Dr. Eleven” define Kirsten’s life.
But “Station Eleven” is also a hip novel. In one of the settlements, the “Symphony” encounters a prophet, one of the multiple existing in that world. This meeting will be a violent one and his link with Kirsten’s life randomly deep.
Members of the “Traveling Symphony” disappear, they passed through the prophet’s settlement, a child he wants as wife ran away with them, yet the prophet’s stealth mastery should confuse us: “Is it something supernatural?”, who knows what happens in this new world…
In a nutshell the book offers also adventures, fights, love plots, but found somewhere in the background, somehow necessary in a world supposed to be violent, and the fact that they are serving a purpose, renders them not completely satisfactory.
These are young people’s adventures combined with a lady’s (Miranda’s in “Dr. Eleven”) view of the world and this mix just floats. At the heart of the novel there is a perceivable philosophy, but no major mysteries and behind a world – a breathing, pulsating world – there should be an ocean of connections and truths.The writing is memorable in its details – lost thoughts, lost remarks, haphazard inquiries in someones lost life and pain. I almost wish “Station Eleven” would be just that: random lost profound connections with no attempt of visibility. I read somewhere that this book would adapt successfully into a movie, perhaps it would generate a successful TV series, but I shouldn’t have felt that this goal exists.
Science fiction and dystopia run together with the American metropolitan way of life, in a novel that is clean and enjoyable, easy to appreciate or admire, but difficult to believe and trust. The secrets it guards offer explanations, but are not world building and in a novel that treats the subject of world change, that is difficult to understand.