Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, begins with famous actor Arthur Leander’s real-life death as he plays the role of King Lear on stage. At the same time, outside the theater, people are beginning to sicken and die of the Georgian flu as it sweeps the planet.
In the opening pages, the reader is tossed into a compelling post-apocalyptic world. Who will have the luck, grit, and skill to survive? How will they survive? How will they travel? Eat? Find shelter? Keep their sanity? Form communities? Move on?
The novel has an ensemble cast (a nod to The Traveling Symphony and the troupe of Shakespearian actors): Arthur, Clark, Miranda, Elizabeth, Tyler, Kirsten, and Jeevan—with Arthur as the connection among all the other characters. Clark is his best friend. Miranda is his first wife. Elizabeth is his second wife, mother of their young son, Tyler (who becomes the cruel, Calvinistically-bent Prophet). Kirsten is a child actress, cast as one of Lear’s young daughters. Jeevan is the person who rushes the stage in an effort to save Arthur.
Mandel pairs Kirsten and Tyler in a very Shakespearian way. They are both eight years-old when the flu wipes out almost everybody. Both are children of Arthur (he is Kirsten’s stage father). Both have copies of Miranda’s comic book, Dr. Eleven—which is a graphic expression of the pull between good and evil, awake and asleep, life and death, love and hate, beauty and ugliness that runs throughout the story.
As a grownup, as the Prophet, Tyler has become a cruel and terrifying cult leader in the name of God. Kirsten, on the other hand, before the company’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, describes the world thus: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.”
Near the end of the novel, inevitably, Kirsten and the Prophet must face off.
To weave her tale, Mandel uses a rich and flexible narrative structure sort of like crochet, where there is a string of linear yarn, but the story is told in a series of interlocking loops that often go back to the beginning and start again—growing richer with each pass. She does playful, clever things to make connections. Lots of Shakespearian allusions; four different dogs named Loki; a paperweight which is a hostess gift to Miranda at a dinner party years before Arthur’s death, which Miranda gives back to Arthur, which he gives to his lover du jour, which she gives to Kirsten, which she gives to Clark for the Museum of Civilization. And everything, big and small, supports in some way awakening into a brave new world.
Jeevan, in the old world, was a paparazzi in a relationship with a shallow, indifferent woman. In the new world, twenty years out, he lives in a settlement in Virginia practicing primitive medicine. The end of the day finds him drinking wine amidst “the gentle music of the river, cicadas in the trees, the stars above the weeping willows on the far bank. . . . He was overcome at his good fortune at having found this place, this tranquility, this woman, at having lived to see a time worth living in.” Mandel shows us a new world which is a slow and painful work in progress. We get our parting look through the eyes of Clark who “has no expectation of seeing an airplane rise again in his lifetime, but is it possible that somewhere there are ships setting out? If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?”
And the Traveling Symphony is going on the road again, taking a new route, perhaps to find the far southern town with the electrical grid. The first horse-drawn truck in the procession, as always, bears the creed: Because survival is insufficient.
— Sharelle Moranville