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Between Two Worlds: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

By (May 20, 2015) No Comment

cover-station-elevenI surprised myself when I picked Station Eleven to read next — and in fact there’s a pretty close possible world in which I don’t read it because it has two big knocks against it: it’s post-apocalyptic fiction, which is not a genre I’m usually drawn to, and it’s a recent book by a hip young writer and has been getting a lot of hype, which tends to make me suspicious. “Time will tell,” says my inner curmudgeon; “read the book if people are still talking about it after the initial buzz dies down.”

Two things overcame these prejudices. One of them was remembering my experience reading (and then teaching) The Road. Clearly my initial recoil against the genre can be overcome — and if once, why not twice? And the other is that I happened to catch some of Shelagh Rogers’s interview with Emily St. John Mandel on CBC’s “The Next Chapter” and between them they made the book sound pretty interesting. Also, I am still not getting along very well with The World Before Us (which on the face if it is just the kind of book I usually do enjoy!) so when Station Eleven turned up as Kobo’s ‘deal of the day,’ the timing was perfect.

Station Eleven actually (inevitably, I guess) has a lot in common with The Road. Everybody in it is on the road, basically, or was, after what is commonly referred to as “the collapse,” until settling somewhere. There are abandoned cars, ransacked stores, and empty houses that are like ghostly remnants of the lost world. There are “feral” gangs and violent desperadoes. But everybody’s moving in a much less hostile landscape in Station Eleven, because the catastrophe was a flu virus that wiped out most of the world’s population but left the natural habitat unharmed (if mostly untended). There are forests and butterflies, cows and chickens, sunsets and clean lakes and rivers for washing and drinking. It’s a kinder, gentler dystopia! As a result there’s a hopeful strain running through the novel alongside the grief, terror, and nostalgia: civilization has collapsed, but there’s a chance it can be built up again, and the creativity and cooperation among at least some of the survivors is proof of that promise.

It’s still a pretty grim novel. How could it not be, with a death rate in the general population of something like 90%? The premise itself is plenty terrifying, more so in a way than McCarthy’s rather vague flash-and-bang disaster simply because its horror is more intimate and familiar: there have been flu pandemics before, and in today’s incessantly mobile world a truly deadly one could hardly be contained. Mandel effectively conjures up the disbelief, confusion, horror, and then gradual adaptation that follows the pandemic, as the assumption that eventually help (the Red Cross, the military) will show up — as it always has before — yields to the realization that this time it won’t, that everything has changed, that the old world really has given way to a new one. Her story includes people who remember both worlds, because they were adults when the collapse occurred; people who recall only fragments that they struggle to reconcile with their new lives; and then the new generation, those who have never used electricity or the internet or a phone or antibiotics, who know airplanes only as places to camp and cars only as obstacles. Which is better, her characters often wonder: to have known that other world, with all its wonders, and to have lost it? or to take the new stunted life for granted?

Like The RoadStation Eleven provokes fundamental questions about meaning, value, and identity. If you have lost everyone who once knew you, and can no longer do the work that once defined you, who are you? If you survive, what will you need to know, and what will you want to do? The novel’s main characters belong to The Symphony, a group of traveling actors and musicians who perform Beethoven and Shakespeare; their motto (taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) is “Because Survival Is Insufficient,” which struck me at first as too pat but which ends up illuminating the range of things people do in this new, devastated world, not just to fill their time but to motivate and define themselves: starting a newspaper, creating a museum, putting on plays. Both the instinct to create and the desire to preserve take on fresh urgency in this context of loss and erasure: an awareness that other things were possible supports the belief that the terrible present too is not forever: “if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?”

Station Eleven turned out to be, then, a really engrossing read. And yet I actually found the general situation  of the novel — its big questions — more interesting than its specific plot, which by the end I found too contrived, too full of coincidences and connections that seemed unnecessarily clever, as if Mandel distrusted the simple humanity of her people to support the novel. She shouldn’t have: they are well drawn, and I wanted to know their stories and their fates. If the plot occasionally turned melodramatic, I suppose that comes with the post-apocalyptic territory (though did we really need a messianic cult, or a final confrontation at gunpoint?). There were some moments in the prose that struck me as lazy: phrases like “survived against unspeakable odds,” for instance. I also thought that, since everyone knows the novel’s premise going in, we could have done without heavy-handed proleptic announcements of impending doom, or painstaking enumerations of what’s lost (“No more cities. No more films … No more pharmaceuticals. . . No more countries … No more fire departments, no more police…”).

Or maybe I’m wrong about that last complaint, as both the vastness and the fragility of everything we could lose is truly hard to comprehend. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Station Eleven is that it celebrates, rather than excoriates, the way we live now, with its “taken-for-granted miracles that had persisted all around.” Ironically, it may be only in imagining “the end of the world as we know it” that we can understand how astonishing, even magical, that world really is.