The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb. News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.
Civilization has crumbled.
A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe. But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.
Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan — warned about the flu just in time; Arthur’s first wife Miranda; Arthur’s oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed ‘prophet’. Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything — even the end of the world.
Station Eleven is a postapocalyptic novel in the manner of The Road, and indeed shares some of the same features as that novel, such as travelling through the postapocalyptic world… but Mandel’s creation is actually completely at odds with McCarthy’s.
I wouldn’t say Station Eleven is hopeful; no book with a postapocalyptic prophet who kills his way to control of towns, kidnaps preteen/early-teenage girls to make them his and his cultists’ wives, and controls places by fear can really be described as hopeful, nor really can one which starts out by killing most of the population with a flu pandemic. At the same time, a novel that suggests not only will humanity survive, but that culture will survive, in the form of the Travelling Symphony – a 16th century style band of players, travelling a small part of what used to be America playing Classical music and performing Shakespeare – is inherently hopeful; it presents a picture of humanity as not only wanting but actually needing a certain level of culture to survive, a picture that is rather attractive.
The present tense narrative is also strangely hopeful; Mandel tells the story of an actor from a small town who hits it big, and Station Eleven watches as marriages form and break apart, as fame’s vagaries leave their mark as the media harass and then forget him, and the effects on those around a celebrity. Indeed, this strand of Station Eleven is a fascinating, beautiful attack on the damage celebrity culture does to those we think of as inviting it; celebrities themselves, and those in their close orbits. We learn about two of the three wives of our actor, Arthur; about his close friend Clark; and about Arthur himself, all damaged in some way by Arthur’s fame.
Of course, neither of Mandel’s narratives would be at all compelling if Station Eleven wasn’t. The two timelines are interleaved brilliantly, moving around among characters in “past” and “present” – that is, the pre-and-para-apocalypse and the post-apocalypse – who are linked through Arthur’s final performance of King Lear; that simple, minor link serves as a brilliant way to tie the various individuals, otherwise very disparate, together, especially as while some coincidental postapocalyptic meetings happen, Mandel doesn’t push it and bring everyone together. That lack of contrived collision is a real strength of Station Eleven, avoiding a forced, false reunion; it gives the book a much more natural, honest and real feeling that might otherwise have been lost.
The characters of Station Eleven are beautifully human; each is an individual with very individual interests, from Arthur’s inability to deal with his fame and lack of real human connection caused by his fame – the tragic trajectory of Arthur’s life is a really interesting demonstration that it doesn’t take an apocalypse for people to die unhappy. By contrast, Clark’s trajectory demonstrates that an apocalypse isn’t necessarily a tragic event; its immediate impact is inevitably traumatic, especially in parting him from his boyfriend, but the way he develops is an interesting study of a character responding to disaster.
Station Eleven, though, is dominated and defined by female characters; Kirsten and Miranda are really the core of Mandel’s novel, with their distinctly different models of female life, possibility, and development. Mandel doesn’t go down the well-trodden routes of a woman destroyed by her divorce – nor one who is completely motivated by it; rather, Miranda is a brilliant character in her own life, who interacts with but is far from defined by the men around her. It’s a great portrayal of an older woman, as well, as we see her grow, mature, and develop wonderfully. Kirsten, on the other hand, is a young woman, a child at the time of the apocalypse, who grows up in a strange limbo state, one that Mandel paints beautifully – that of half-remembering the abundant pre-apocalypse, but unsure how much is actual memory and how much is constructed. Station Eleven handles it really deftly, intelligently and well, and Kirsten is a really fascinating character as a result.
Station Eleven isn’t perfect – it could do with a little more exploration of how a stable society actually develops. Worse, Mandel skims an awful lot over the pain and horror that is implied in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse – especially concern surrounding loved ones; indeed, Mandel really takes away the pain of those who lose loved ones, and it seems very strange to have that emotion lost given the emotional truth of so much of the rest of the novel.
Overall, though, Station Eleven is a great example of post-apocalyptic literature with heart; Mandel takes a theoretically crushing narrative and injects it with hope, without taking away (although, granted, blunting) the horror of apocalypse. Very well done.