FINDING HOPE AT STATION ELEVEN

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Novelist Emily St. John Mandel

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.

StationElevenHCUS2To the question: “What would become of the world of the early 21st century if a pandemic swept away 99% of the Earth’s human population?”, the author provides an unassuming and affecting answer.

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. Justslide_kinglear 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.

Station Eleven comic 8 by Nathan Burton
Nathan Burton was asked to design the comic, written by Miranda and read by Kirsten, which underlies the book’s themes. From: theliterarytree.blogspot.com 702 × 560

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)

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Author Emily St. John Mandel
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9 thoughts on “FINDING HOPE AT STATION ELEVEN

  1. Hi Michelle,

    Station Eleven sounds really good, I would like to read it. Not sure I can get it at my library in Terrebonne, very few English books. If I can’t get it, can I join the Pointe Claire library? Is it possible as an out of towner? Is the cost reasonable or is it very expensive. If you can let me know.

    I am transferring your posts now to two of my friends not on facebook, one in NDG and the other in Pointe Claire . Maybe we can all meet sometime, one of them, my friend Gloria a retired special education teacher and the other Noreen who was a journalist years ago then entrepreneur and now a world traveler. Just thought about it I have another friend Laurie, in Pointe Claire, who was also a teacher, I am sure your blog will interest her.

    Have a nice day!

    Lynda

  2. Hello Lynda!

    I’m so happy that you’ve joined the conversation here, at the Online Book Club: welcome!

    There are so many things about your comment that delight me:

    – There’s the fact that the Library’s blog has reached you in Terrebonne (though I know that you grew up in the West Island);

    – There’s the fact that my most recent blog post elicited such a positive response to STATION ELEVEN that you want to read it (really, this is just great 🙂 ) ;

    – There’s also the desire it spurred in you to get together to talk about books and share impressions and thoughts about novels like Emily Mandel’s.

    – And finally, of course, there’s your desire to join the Pointe-Claire Library.

    I have the information you want:
    Of course you can join the Library. While membership is free for Pointe-Claire residents, NON-RESIDENT annual individual membership is $80
    (see here: http://biblio.ville.pointe-claire.qc.ca/home/about_us/membership.dot), which isn’t cheap, but which is money well spent, I would think.

    – About getting together to talk about books with friends, of course I’m interested. 🙂

    I think that the best place to start is right here. Have your friends come and take a look at the blog, and join in the conversations that pop up regularly in the COMMENTS section.

    I’m always looking for ideas and suggestions for books and/or discussions online, but if this blog also led to spin-off book discussion groups, well, I would be over the moon (provided these groups report in to the blog and share their discoveries and opinions!!). 🙂

    Thanks Lynda, and do consider becoming a member of the Library.

    Michelle

  3. I find inspiring the human spirit and the will to not just survive but to live, despite death, bleakness and hopelessness. This book sounds kind of scary, not because of the “Georgian flu” but the fear of watching your family, friends die, of being left alone. Would that human spirit, that will to live propel you to carry on without them? Would you want to? Life without government, food, tv etc…..would be difficult. But without family, friends….really scary.
    >>>>> “Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” <<<<<< So true.

  4. Dear Lorraine,

    Stories of survival in a post-apocalytic world are really popular right now. We see them in novel and TV series, like “The Walking Dead”, or “ZNation” .
    (see: http://insidetv.ew.com/2014/08/19/z-nation-trailer/)

    But there are also movies like “Children of Men” (by PD James!) and “The Road” (by Cormac Mc Carthy); both of which were also made into movies, that are about futures so bleak and so brutal and soul-killing that I’m convinced that I would NOT want to keep living.

    There’s even a cool comic book series called Y THE LAST MAN, which is wonderful.
    http://www.vertigocomics.com/graphic-novels/y-the-last-man-vol-1-unmanned

    The Library has some of the issues of this series:

    http://matane2.ville.pointe-claire.qc.ca/alswww2.dll/APS_PRESENT_BIB?Style=Portal3&SubStyle=&Lang=ENG&ResponseEncoding=utf-8&no=0000293446&Via=Z3950&View=Annotated&Parent=Obj_113971422316613&SearchBrowseList=Obj_113971422316613&SearchBrowseListItem=14336&BrowseList=Obj_113971422316613?Style=Portal3&SubStyle=&Lang=ENG&ResponseEncoding=utf-8&BrowseListItem=14336&QueryObject=Obj_113961422316613)

    I’ve had this conversation with my youngest son many times. I always say: why survive in a world where everyone, including your children, are damaged beyond repair with PTSD? But my son always answers that as long as he had a loved one alive, especially a child, he would fight on ; he would never give up. Such is his love of life.

    To reassure you, STATION ELEVEN isn’t really about those kinds of wrenching decisions, because those who become infected are gone so quickly, that the reader has the impression that it was almost surreal for the people living it. And most families all died together.
    Also, a lot of the children who survived have partial amnesia (the mind protecting the child from such traumatic experiences) .

    So the story really isn’t about the dying, which happens very quickly, but it’s more about the unconscious, unmindful ways we live; always believing in an endless series of tomorrows, and about what happens when that certainty is destroyed, and ALMOST everyone is gone.

    How does a survivor reconfigure his thought processes, his way of being, of living, of hoping?
    It’s a new world where every value of the post-industrial world is stripped away or irrelevant, but there is still food to hunt and pick, and air to breathe, and shelter…

    Emily St.John Mandel’s vision is more hopeful: the world isn’t overrun by psychopaths because most of them died too. Disease is the great equalizer.

    I thought is was a quiet, kind and original novel that I KNOW you’d enjoy.

    Thanks for this latest, wonderful feedback; keep it coming. 🙂
    And yes, “Hell is the absence of the people you long for” was the line that jumped out at me and which I immediately stored away.
    I never understood how Sartre could think: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (from HUIS CLOS)

  5. I read a book of this sort when I was young, called Earth Abides. It was so thought-provoking, in a brand new way. I had to consider, for the first time, how it would be to live in a world so completely changed. How it would feel to be the human link between what had been and and a newly emerging reality. Fascinating to contemplate!

    1. Hello Gail,

      How interesting! I just looked it up.

      http://januarymagazine.com/SFF/earthabides.html

      It would be fascinating to compare the two. Most interesting, from what I was able to snatch from online descriptions of the book, is that in Earth Abides, humans lack the imagination to create art and to experience the elevation of the soul that comes from creative inspiration.

      To me, though, the title sounds like the underlying message was ecological. Was it?

      I remember, in the movie remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu saying:

      “If the Earth dies, you die. If the human race dies, the Earth survives.”

      It was chilling. Is that the message of “Earth Abides”?

  6. Hmmm…. I don’t remember the details. Everyone died of a sickness. The few remaining humans were random and ordinary, as I recall, in no way suited to curate the knowledge of the world nor especially suited to create a new society. You could see that ‘our’ world would disappear and that something new would develop out of peoples’ rather haphazard choices and actions. Any attempt to preserve the past was obviously out of the question. I think I was struck by how everything meaningful and familiar in culture suddenly became empty, without context. I was shocked to think how quickly our science, medicine, technology, history, art, language, etc would be lost to future generations of humans. These few left-over people would end up producing children whose lives would take some other yet to be determined turn. Perhaps it wasn’t the greatest book, actually. But it was certainly thought-provoking and sparked my young imagination!

    1. Hello Gail,

      Your thematic summary and especially your memory of “Earth Abides” is brilliantly clear (wow!), and has me thinking that Emily St. John Mandel may have been (and probably was) influenced by it, because what you’ve written is completely transferable to STATION ELEVEN, even though I’m pretty sure the latter would still seem fresh and original to you.

      The biblical ‘ “There is nothing new under the sun”, (http://www.bible.ca/ef/expository-ecclesiastes-1-4-11.htm) has never felt more true, but maybe we could say:

      “There is nothing new under the sun: it is through the uniqueness of our subjective perceptions and interpretations of it that the universe is constantly reinvented”.

      What do you think?

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