Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

(Mandel, p. 178)

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed, amongst other things, one of the other worlds that exists beyond our range of sight. In the world of last January, a world of neoliberalism and political prevarication, a time when governments would pay nations’ wages while the population is indefinitely quarantined was so far out of our collective vision as to be practically nonexistent.

Yet here we are, in a world that we have never seen before.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is concerned with these sorts of “world[s] just out of sight”. It is also concerned with the impact of a pandemic, though fortunately the coronavirus does not share the fatality rate of Mandel’s Georgia Flu, which kills around 99% of humanity within a couple of months. The story opens with a death, but not from flu: famous actor Arthur Leander has a heart attack on-stage, during a performance of King Lear, despite attempts by Jeevan Chaudhary, medic-in-training, to resuscitate him. Jeevan’s emotions in the wake of this tragedy are overtaken by alarm as he learns that the Georgia Flu is spreading through North America, killing its victims within forty-eight hours. He holes up in his brother’s apartment with trolley-loads of food, and prepares to watch the collapse of civilisation.

It is at this point that Mandel subverts expectations, jumping forward twenty years to Kirsten, an actress with the Travelling Symphony, a nomadic theatre troupe and orchestra who move from place to place in the blasted landscape of the post-pandemic world. She carries with her two issues of a graphic novel entitled Dr. Eleven, given to her by Arthur in a long-past life when she was a child actress. The books were created by Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife, and the only one with whom we, as readers, become well-acquainted. Kirsten also carries some press clippings, including a photograph of Miranda, taken by some unscrupulous paparazzo, a profession that Jeevan, at an even earlier time, also pursued. In these ways, random items and artefacts, from photographs to paperweights, bind these disparate characters together across the time and space of Mandel’s novel, suggesting to us the interconnections that transmit emotion, memory, and, indeed, contagion.

Of course, the destruction of humanity by a killer flu is familiar ground for genre fiction, most famously Stephen King’s The Stand, in which over 99% of humanity is wiped out by a “superflu”. These two novels resemble each other in more aspects than their body count: both depict the movement of ragtag survivors across North America in the aftermath of the pandemic; both include a pivotal character who happens to be a spiritually bankrupt celebrity (for Mandel, an actor, for King, a musician); both are interested in the imagery of the American highway jammed with vehicles that are, in turn, jammed with corpses; and both present their villain in the form of a messianic leader who gathers a cult-like following. At first glance, Mandel’s book, written in a crosscut montage of perspectives from various characters and times, is a 21st century update on an apocalyptic classic.

It is the contrasts, however, that reveal what sort of book Station Eleven actually is. Unlike King’s dejected musician, Mandel’s Arthur dies on the first page, and much of the novel is devoted to unraveling his extraordinarily messy backstory. Unlike the attempts of King’s survivors to re-establish civilisation in Boulder, Colorado, Mandel’s post-flu society is made up of small, scattered settlements, connected in tenuous ways, such as through the Travelling Symphony, which offers fleeting echoes of the past in their performances of Shakespeare. And unlike King’s iconic Randall Flagg, a devilish wizard who elevated The Stand to the status of contemporary mythology, Mandel’s villain is an ineffective figure, with rhetoric similar to Flagg’s, but none of the magical powers. Though it begins in a theatre, Station Eleven is not a dramatic tale. If it were a play, it would be less Shakespeare and more Beckett, where almost everything significant occurs off-stage, leaving the characters to contemplate their impressions of things, and wonder where they went wrong.

The novel is preoccupied with a central catastrophe: not the pandemic, the progress of which is relegated to a few dramatic pages, halfway into the book. Instead, it is concerned with the acute disaster of modern life: that so many people find themselves entombed by their own choices. Arthur, at least, finds fulfilment in acting; yet he carries it too far, turning his entire life into a theatrical performance that begins as a passionate, heroic saga, and ends in a memorable but miserable demise. Miranda recovers from their divorce and finds purpose in a jet-setting career, yet there is a desolation as “she isn’t sure where she stops and her job begins”. The Travelling Symphony proudly display their motto that “survival is insufficient”, yet reject fresh creativity, re-staging the same plays time after time, forgetting that culture is about renewal as well as preservation.

Arthur’s closest friend, Clark, runs a sort of corporate therapy firm, providing solutions when executives fail to function in the most effective manner. His work involves interviewing those close to his “target”, to assess strengths, weaknesses, and so modify behaviours accordingly. He proceeds in this manner for two decades, until an interviewee confronts him with a shocking observation. Most adults, she tells him, are ghosts, trapped in the wrong life, performing their tasks without recognising their own despair, drifting like “[h]igh-functioning sleepwalkers”. Her description applies to many of the novel’s characters, yet she does not mention something else: that these people yearn for a world beyond their reach. Arthur for a life of simplicity, where his mistakes do not plague his every step; Miranda for the world of her graphic novels, which she can mould and influence in a way that is impossible in the harsh world of men and machines; Kirsten for the past, when electric light could dispel shadows and memory was not a catalogue of horror. This sense of displacement dominates the tale, as characters dwell on places beyond their ken, and as crucial events — divorces, deaths, career changes, societal collapse — happen off-stage, in the hidden worlds of the story.

The other theatrical motif is, perhaps inevitably, the question of performance. Listing the things lost in the pandemic, Mandel tells us of the websites that disappeared, concluding the chapter with the line, “No more avatars.” She refers to the peculiar icons and images with which people represent themselves in the cybernetic public sphere, yet as anyone who has seen the film knows, an avatar is also a false front, a deceptive appearance presented by one who does not want to expose their true self. In the post-flu world, there is little space for such trickery. The grievances among the Travelling Symphony are itemised early on, in a comical chain of association, like the description of a contagion’s progress, as though resentment itself were an infectious disease. Hatred, of oneself and of others, lives on in this world, but it is exposed and brutally apparent, unlike in Arthur’s world, when it is concealed in gestures beneath tabletops, and in the way people choose to sit in a restaurant.

The contrast at the heart of the novel is perhaps most evident in Arthur’s and Kirsten’s respective understandings of acting. Both love it, “never feel[ing] more alive than at these moments”. Arthur’s skill is profound, yet it consumes him, so that people he speaks to have the “odd impression that he was performing a scene”. Kirsten, however, retains her grip on reality, holding tight to her connections with other people, those whom she fights and survives alongside. Beneath it, she retains a sense of herself, the girl who walked out of Toronto amidst the apocalypse, capable of confronting death with acceptance, while Arthur, in the unknowing moments before his sudden demise, finds himself to be “a man who repented almost everything”. He has lost himself in dreams. Kirsten dreams, too, leafing through Dr. Eleven, yet she does not condemn herself to unreality.

This is not a perfect novel. The technique of multiple perspectives and time jumps is not exactly original, and it is difficult for any author to innovate beyond the landmark that is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. One wonders if this novel would be far duller if it were written in a linear fashion: if so, is the montage a cheap trick? Mandel generally evades the potholes of genre fiction, but the imperatives of her chosen narrative weigh on the character arcs, and the final fifty pages offer a denouement that, at times, belongs to an entirely different, rather less nuanced book. There are moments, too, when the narrative voices blend together, the unavoidable danger of shifting perspective constantly. Formally, Station Eleven does not offer any significant development.

What it does offer is a glimpse at the mosaic of life, a sense of how lives touch each other, leaving scars or memories. It offers a warning, that we are pinpricks in the transitory processes of the great world, and we must spend our choices wisely, because nothing will save us from our own foolishness. It offers a reminder, that so much of life is an illusion, within which purpose can be lost in silence. In The Stand, Stephen King was preoccupied with the existence of evil, and its preternatural manifestations, the ways in which it twists goodness into giving up on itself. Mandel is concerned with something far more terrifying: the indifference of the universe, the extent to which we are alone, protected only by the authenticity of our choices. In our current viral scenario, when every choice could set off a chain reaction that culminates in a death, this is an idea to reckon with.

English, history, and other things. My first novel THE LAST WORLD is available on Amazon.

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