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Station Eleven

December 9, 2014

Everything almost—well kind of, nearly, so close to completely—comes together in the brave new world at the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s gloriously inter-woven novel, Station Eleven. The title comes from a science fiction comic drawn by one of the characters, Miranda, whose life and work have intersected with others in ways and with repercussions she could never imagine and never sees, since she succumbs to the flu pandemic that leaves the world changed. How does one’s own life—one imagination, one set of aspirations, one memory of what is good and beautiful, one book, one performance of a lifetime—leave imprints on others, and for how long, and in what ways? These are among the big questions this novel explores.

A character who doesn’t live to see the ending of his world but dies onstage playing King Lear, Arthur Leander, has a conversation early in his career in which someone says to him “You love acting, don’t you?….What a wonderful thing, to get paid for doing what you love.” The poignancy of this, in the context of knowing his world ended with him, has the effect of making the reader stop to appreciate the extent to which he or she makes a living above the level of pure survival. Beginning the book with a performance of King Lear has the effect of letting readers see the stories of those who survive the flu pandemic as wanderers on the heath, people who might say, with Lear, that “where the greater malady is fix’d/The lesser is scarce felt.”

The main characters of the post-flu-pandemic world are with the travelling symphony, who perform Beethoven and Shakespeare but whose motto is drawn from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” The loss of so many of the things that form the foundation of modern life—the ability to call someone anywhere around the world or to look up everything on the world wide web—might make it seem that survival, by itself, would take most of a person’s time and attention, but the travelling symphony, like Arthur Leander before them, make a living doing what they love. Their bravery comes from daring to raise their heads from the immediate tasks before them in order to enact ritual and find meaning, even in acts like looking at old cell phones or killing another person. The bravery of a character confined to a wheelchair, who survives the flu but has no good way of getting out of his high-rise apartment building, is given no less notice in this novel, something I particularly appreciated.

Taking clothes from a house that has never been looted before, with the corpses of the former owners still in their beds, is transformed into costuming by Kirsten, a child actor in that opening performance of Lear, who thinks “what the Symphony was doing, what they were always doing, was trying to cast a spell, and costuming helped; the lives they brushed up against were work-worn and difficult, people who spent all their time engaged in the tasks of survival. A few of the actors thought Shakespeare would be more relatable if they dressed in the same patched and faded clothing their audience wore, but Kirsten thought it meant something to see Titania in a gown, Hamlet in a shirt and tie.”

Life is not better because it’s simpler in the new world. The keeper of “The Museum of Civilization,” Clark, turns out to be a former “corporate assessor,” someone who would come in to a corporation and attempt to improve the performance of one of their executives who had been perceived as not performing up to his or her potential. Some of these, he found, were people who had “done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped.” The end of civilization does not mean the end of such “high-functioning sleepwalkers,” although now they function in a different way. One of them is “the prophet,” who lives by the Bible his mother gave him, and whose backstory, when revealed, is one of the saddest parts of the novel.

One of the most wonderful parts, though, is the arrival of one of the two surviving copies of the Station Eleven comics at the Museum of Civilization. Civilization has changed, with a new one built on the ruins of the old, but the meaning of it still comes from individual human experience, sometimes from disappointment in love, ridicule of pretention, and the impulse to get to know another person. Clark, the museum’s curator, ends the novel thinking about looking out to sea, a solitary Prospero with hopes of “ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.”

I loved reading this novel so much that it’s hard to say why. I think the biggest reason is the way the stories of the separate characters begin at what seem to be opposite ends of a pattern and are gradually woven closer together until a recognizable picture is revealed. The individual lives have meaning, but it’s impossible for those individuals to see it. Finally the reader is left; Oberon or Ariel has untied the spell and we can see only what is before us.

Were you anywhere near as entranced, reading this novel, as I was?  My gratitude to the three bloggers who made me realize I could not wait any longer to read it–Jenny at Reading the End, Ana at Things Mean A Lot, and Stefanie at So Many Books.


20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2014 12:34 pm

    So glad that you loved this one. Seems like everyone is “enjoying” it

    • December 10, 2014 9:54 am

      Well, the NYT reviewer, Janet Maslin, was snarky about it, but I figure that’s because she lives in an crowded place and still uses words like “twee.” People I like have liked this book.

  2. December 9, 2014 1:58 pm

    Yay! Loved reading your thoughts! I was so amazed and impressed by how well everything weaves itself together and none of it felt forced. Jeevan’s brother committing suicide made me cry. I liked that in spite of everything, the horrors and the difficulties of surviving, that art still matters, because truly, survival is not sufficient; not in that post-flu world and not in our world here and now. Such a wonderful book!

    • December 10, 2014 9:57 am

      Art always matters to people who read books (I might argue especially to readers of science fiction); the interesting thing about this book is the way it shows that the art you get is always an interpretation. When there’s less art to choose from, the choices made by the artists matter more.

  3. December 9, 2014 2:15 pm

    entirely behind in reading blogs, and what happens? two people IN A ROW have loved this book. i’ve just put it on my husband’s christmas list – and then i can read it when he’s done.

    (here’s the other post:

    • December 10, 2014 10:01 am

      Aside from the one snarky NYT book reviewer, I haven’t heard from anyone who didn’t like this book.

  4. December 9, 2014 3:35 pm

    You’re most welcome! It’s such an excellent novel, and you wrote so beautifully about it.

    • December 10, 2014 10:01 am

      Thanks! When one has just read good stuff, it’s easier to write good stuff.

  5. December 9, 2014 6:01 pm

    When I read the description of this book it doesn’t really appeal to me but so many people are loving it, I feel I must try it.

    • December 10, 2014 10:02 am

      You might like it more than you expect to–it’s not easily categorized, so plot summary doesn’t necessarily tell you as much about this book as it might about another.

  6. December 9, 2014 8:40 pm

    I think I’m going to have to get myself a copy of Station Eleven sooner rather than later — reading your post about it made my heart ache to read it again. Mandel’s writing is so, so lovely, and she’s incredibly good at defamiliarizing our own world in a way that feels terribly melancholy. Ugh. That book. I like it more the more I think about it.

    • December 10, 2014 10:05 am

      I have to admit that because of the semester I’ve been having, I haven’t been able to make the time to go to the public library as often as usual, so I bought this book (in hardback) without reading it first, which is something I usually don’t do. And now I’m glad I did it, and I’m buying MORE copies for my friends and relatives, to give as Christmas presents!

  7. December 15, 2014 9:29 am

    I have a copy of this and want to try it, despite my catastrophising fear of a flu pandemic that wakes me up in the night. I might leave it until after Christmas, but I’m definitely going to give it a whirl.

    • December 15, 2014 9:33 am

      I think you’ll like it. The flu pandemic is either in the past or (in a few cases) in the future, so the predominant feeling about it, as some reviewers note, is elegy, not panic or fear.

  8. December 15, 2014 10:16 pm

    I was enamored with this book too. I loved seeing the way the stories gradually came together, in this way that felt surprising and inevitable all at the same time. It was just so beautiful and sad and lovely. I’m glad you loved it too!

    • December 15, 2014 10:23 pm

      I didn’t talk about the way the main story of the novel dovetailed with the story of Station Eleven, the comic. That felt surprising and inevitable to me. I’m still not sure I like the title, but I do like the significance of the phrase.

  9. December 26, 2014 11:55 am

    I have this one on order at my local book store. Just waiting for the paperback….


  1. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon
  2. The Glass Hotel | Necromancy Never Pays

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