If you google the words “pandemic novels”, you’ll get 336 000 results in 0.16 seconds.
It isn’t surprising that Stephen King, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton or Guillermo Del Toro have been drawn to the challenge of plague fiction, but it’s probably less expected that Daniel Defoe, Giovanni Boccaccio and two Nobel Prize winners, Albert Camus and Jose Saramago have also explored the theme in their work.
But whether they’re works of popular or literary fiction, rich in action or in allegory, most of these tales are about dark and devastated places; about mob rule, violence and suffering; about finding reasons to live in a hopeless world; about nature’s ability to heal itself, if not us; about human cruelty and dignity; and about the end of civilization and the birth of a new world order that’s almost always frightening.
While many writers work hard to create alternative realities with reimagined, complex social structures, unfamiliar post-apocalyptic environments and military forces of one kind or another, Emily St. John Mandel, in Station Eleven (her fourth novel), creates a vision of the world that astonishes in its simplicity.
This is perhaps made easier by the fact that the watershed moment that shapes her novel is known simply as The Collapse: the two week period when an extremely aggressive strain of swine flu first appears in Russia (referred to as the Georgian Flu); with symptoms appearing within 3 to 4 hours after exposure (!!) followed inevitably by death in a day or two, and spreading so quickly that emergency measures and responses of any kind are useless.
What WOULD happen? In Mandel’s novel, there’s no bang; just a whimper.
With such accelerated contagion, it’s the hospitals that fail first. But as the flu spreads in every direction, and with no one there to keep them running, all systems eventually crash: TV, radio, the internet and phones, electrical grids, running water and functioning plumbing, food distribution networks and finally, governments. Within a matter of weeks. All hollowed out and ghostly. Science is rendered useless. There is simply no one there. The infected die everywhere: in their cars, in their offices, in their homes, in hotels, at work, on the side of the street, on the bus and in airplanes.
Mostly, they die quietly, trying to get home, to find their families and their loved ones, or trying to find safety. A tiny fraction of the world’s population succeeds in the latter.
There’s no war to be fought, no mobilizing force to save humanity. Neither weapons, nor brawn nor criminal intent make any difference. There’s simply life before The Collapse, and the largely empty world after.
That’s why, to me, Mandel’s choices make sense. In a world where the landscape, the structures, the flora and the fauna have been spared, the remaining, tiny human population becomes intensely interesting, and so the author focuses her story solely on them.
The structure of the novel is similar to another wonderful book I reviewed in December. Just like Anthony Doerr, Mandel tells her story by moving forward and backward in time, from roughly twenty-five years before The Collapse to twenty years after, which works especially well, by allowing the story’s tone and mood to shift as its characters live their pre and post Collapse lives―never allowing the story to become unbearably heavy. These movements in time also work by keeping the reader connected to the characters throughout the novel, despite the fact that not all of them survive the pandemic.
In fact, the cast of characters is quite small, though their lives intersect throughout the novel.
– There’s Arthur Leander, the middle-aged celebrity actor who has a massive heart attack on the stage where he is playing King Lear, on the very night the pandemic reaches the city where he’s performing (Toronto);
– There are Arthur’s three ex-wives, including Miranda, who is the artist and creator of the comic book series Dr. Eleven from which the novel draws its name;
– There’s Clark, a former actor and classmate of Arthur’s who is perhaps also his best and oldest friend, who has grown disenchanted and unhappy with his successful life as a management consultant;
– There’s Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor on stage the night of Arthur’s collapse;
– There’s Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic in training who performs CPR on Arthur the night of his heart attack;
– There’s the Travelling Symphony, a group of survivors of The Collapse who band together and dedicate their lives to travelling a familiar route, from one tiny village to the next, playing classical music and performing Shakespeare, including a now adult Kirsten, and such characters as Dieter, August, The Conductor, Sayid, and also: The clarinet, The tuba, The sixth guitar, etc. (the reader never learns their pre-Collapse names)
– And finally, there’s The Prophet, a dangerous and discomfiting character whose identity remains a mystery through most of the novel.
The story of Station Eleven rarely ventures beyond the wanderings of the Travelling Symphony and its horse-drawn caravans, that is to say, beyond the Great Lakes region of North America, and it makes no difference. Life after The Collapse is likely the same on every continent.
And what must it be like to live in a world of ghosts and skeletons: abandoned gas stations, malls and fast food places; houses where the skeletons of The Collapse―parents and children― still lie, undisturbed, in their death beds?
In Mandel’s novel, the Georgian flu survivors struggle with the burden of memory, those born before The Collapse unsure whether it’s best to teach the young about what was, or try to let go of what can never be recreated. Settlements are given new names like Mackinaw City, New Petoskey, East Jordan, New Sarnia and also Severn City, the largest in the area and close to the old airport, with a population of more than three hundred. But the evidence of what once was, and is now lost, is everywhere, some of it ending up in The Museum of Civilization, in Severn City, where it is curated by Clark and a few others.
Faced with a future that must be built over ruins, why go on? Mandel’s answers are carefully stitched into the fabric of her novel and carried through it by the Travelling Symphony, and by Kirsten Raymonde.
On the lead caravan of the Travelling Symphony are inscribed the words SURVIVAL IS INSUFFICIENT. They are also tattooed on Kirsten’s left forearm (quoting an episode of Star Trek: Voyager). On the opposite wrist, Kirsten bears the tattoos of two black knives, to which, by the novel’s end, she will have to add another. They represent the lives she has had to take. Though the killings were acts of self-protection, each one is also an injury to her.
There’s a scene in the novel, describing the early months at Severn City, after The Collapse, which I consider among the most beautiful. It feels more true to me than any harsh and ugly alternative. It brought tears to my eyes.
“But the first man who walked in under low grey skies seemed less dangerous than stunned. He was dirty, of indeterminate age, dressed in layers of clothes, and he hadn’t shaved in a long time. He appeared on the road with a gun in his hand, but he stopped and let the gun fall to the pavement when Tyrone shouted for him to drop it. He raised his hands over his head and stared at the people gathering around him. Everyone had questions. He seemed to struggle for speech. His lips moved silently, and he had to clear his throat several times before he could speak. Clark realized that he hadn’t spoken for some time.
“I was in the hotel,” he said finally. “I followed your footprints in the snow.” There were tears on his face.
“Okay,” someone said, “but why are you crying?”
“I’d thought I was the only one,” he said.
In Mandel’s quiet, thoughtful novel, the Symphony will go on travelling from one town to the next, bringing the beauty of music, of theatre and the words of Shakespeare to the places where people choose to congregate and settle together, believing themselves the better for it.
“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”
(Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven)