I read Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel at the suggestion of my blogging friend Naomi of Consumed by Ink. I listened to it as I drove to and from school a few weeks ago, and the story, both post-apocalyptic and ordinary captivated me.
It centers around an actor named Arthur who dies onstage while performed King Lear in the opening chapter. That same night, the “Georgian” flu reaches the United States and causes an epidemic. Eventually, some 90 percent of the world’s population is killed because of this virus.
The novel flashes forwards and backwards, accounting for the world some 15 to 20 years after the flu and reminding us of the world in which Arthur lived. We hear about Arthur’s wives and son, his best friend from college, his rise to fame as an actor, and his connections to others in the novel. When we flash forward, we learn about characters who were connected to Arthur “before,” but who have now moved on to embrace nomadic living without advanced medicine, electricity, airplanes, or even extensive libraries.
This futuristic world features a “traveling symphony,” which has a member named Kirsten who played one of Lear’s young daughters onstage the night Arthur died. She doesn’t remember much about the first year after the flu killed nearly everybody, as she was a child and blocked out some of the most traumatic experiences. But she now travels with the symphony as a young adult, and she carries with her a handmade comic book that features Captain Eleven in an undersea world. She remembers that Arthur had given her the book before he died that night, and she wonders what it means and where it came from.
When we go back in time, we learn that Arthur’s first wife wrote and illustrated the Captain Eleven comic books. When we move forward again, we learn that the comic books have also influenced somebody else in this futuristic and cataclysmic world: Arthur’s son with his second wife.
This son is now grown and called “The Prophet,” and he leads a community that is controlled by him. The traveling symphony discovers this community when they visit and see how much it has changed. The Prophet has taken over, instilling fear and even creating grave markers for those who leave and refuse to be part of his experimental religious living. Part of his influence includes his taking young wives, similar to polygamy. When the traveling symphony leaves his city quickly, taking a young girl with them, he and his men follow them in order to retake the girl. Some of the members of the symphony are killed, but eventually Kirsten triumphs in a confrontation with The Prophet, after she realizes that he has internalized the same passages and ideas from the comic books as she has.
The book closes with these traveling wanderers finding their way to an airport, where Arthur’s best friend from college has been curating a museum of things from the former way of life, like cell phones and passports. The people stuck in the airport at the time of the flu collapse have created a community that is thriving.
While what I’ve described sounds confusing, and perhaps unsophisticated, it is just the opposite. The novel weaves these many stories skillfully and artfully, making the reading experience pleasurable, intriguing, and ultimately satisfying when the characters and narratives come together in the end. The novel also explores the theme of apocalypse and civilization resurrection deftly and seriously, without making it seem ridiculous or annoying. Sometimes dystopian novels require too much of a suspension of disbelief. With Station Eleven, this is not the case. It is completely believable and realistic.
I loved this novel. It is one of the first I’ve been able to read in a while, because of my busyness with school and research. If you’re looking for a serious but fascinating and entertaining novel that offers something different in terms of the literary market right now, I suggest Station Eleven. I wish it had not ended. I wanted to know more about the characters and their futures. I wanted to hear about the fates of more people during the flu disaster. I wanted to know more about Arthur’s life and influence. I wanted to continue to learn about the way people were living following the collapse of everything. Ultimately, I wanted to know more because so many of these characters and their experiences inform what all of us are living each day, a survival of life and relationships and modernity and power.
In the end, I learned that a nearby town had reconnected electricity. Where did they go from there?