Saturday, December 17, 2016

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven (2014), by Emily St. John Mandel, is another in a seemingly endless onslaught of novels about the end of the world, the end of human civilization. However, this one doesn't involve zombies or vampires or an alien invasion. Instead it's about a disease called the Georgia Flu that comes into the US with passengers on a passenger plane from Russia. Within hours all the people on the plane are showing symptoms of the disease and by the next day they’re dead. The disease quickly spreads across Canada and the United States and the rest of the world. The mortality rate is 99%. The author doesn't dwell on the symptoms of the disease or the suffering of the people who die from it. Instead it reviews events leading up to the outbreak over a 20-year period, and then events leading away from it over the next 20-year period. The central character is a man named Arthur Leander, a prominent actor who at the beginning of the novel is portraying the lead role in an innovative production of Shakespeare's King Lear in Toronto. Midway through the performance he suffers a heart attack and dies. The course of his career from his early days as a college student to the days of his middle life where he's a great success and is highly respected and is pursued by paparazzi provides a motif around which the novel is built. Various people who come in touch with Leander or who know of him in some way are central characters in the novel.

The title refers to a graphic novel written by Arthur's first wife Miranda. She doesn't write it for publication. She writes and illustrates it for personal satisfaction. It has an intricate plot and is beautifully illustrated.  Some events in her novel run parallel to events in Miranda's life, including her relatively short marriage to Arthur. Various characters read or are influenced by her novel in various ways.

Stations Eleven focuses on the Collapse, which means the collapse of civilization in the months immediately following the outbreak of the flu. Within two weeks virtually everybody is dead, except for the 1% who through various means (genetics or luck) survive. The novel is not maudlin. It doesn't dwell on the grotesque or violent.  Its tone is elegiac, especially when older characters tell younger ones about what it was like to live in a time when there was the Internet and electricity and cars and airplanes and technology. It reminded me of the 1950s novel On the Beach, by Neville Shute, and the film based on it.

King Lear and Shakespeare's plays provide a running motif. In the years following the Collapse a group of performers, musicians, and actors and others band together as the Traveling Symphony and trek through Michigan and Canada performing Shakespeare's plays and music by composers such as Beethoven and Bach. They're the only entertainment, the only access to any kind of art or culture, which anyone left in these parts of the world has access to.

A man named Clark, who was close friends with Arthur early in their lives, gets stuck at an airport in the upper Midwest and lives the rest of his life there with about 300 other people. He collects artifacts from the world before the Collapse and starts a Museum of Civilization whose collection includes cell phones and iPads and computers and other relics of the former world. The museum’s existence is important. People visit it. Clark interviews all the members of the Traveling Symphony including a young woman named Kristin, who coincidentally had a small part in the play King Lear that Arthur Leander starred in. She was on stage standing behind Leander the night he suffered his heart attack. He gives her a copy of the graphic novel “Station 11” which his wife had given to him, and she carries it with her everywhere she goes for the rest of her life. This novel is depressing, yes. But in its own way it’s hopeful. It suggests that should a terrible calamity occur that wipes out human civilization the few who remain, the few who survive, if there are a few, will value enough what they have lost enough that they will seek to keep it alive--for its own value, for posterity’s sake, for the benefit of those who otherwise would never be able to appreciate a symphony or a tragedy by Shakespeare.

This is a beautifully written novel, ingeniously plotted, full of interesting characters, a deep meditation on how quickly we might lose everything we have achieved.

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