We no doubt live in delicate and fearful times. Be it terrorism, a global pandemic or something as simple as the end of a personal relationship or a the decline of our own health, we are stressed about our futures. And Emily St. John Mandel has captured our concern in her novel Station Eleven.
He felt an absurd desire to run into the park. It had been rendered foreign by the storm, all snow and shadows, black silhouettes of trees, the underwater shine of a glass greenhouse dome. When he was a boy he’d liked to lie on his back in the yard and watch the snow coming down upon him. Cabbagetown was visible a few blocks ahead, the snow-dimmed lights of Parliament Street. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He stopped to read a text message from Laura: I had a headache so I went home. Can you pick up milk?
And here, all momentum left him. He could go no father. The theatre tickets had been intended as a romantic gesture, a let’s-do-something-romantic-because-all-we-do-is-fight, and she’d abandoned him there, she’d left him onstage performing CPR on a dead actor and gone home, and now she wanted him to buy milk. Now that he’d stopped walking, Jeevan was cold. His toes were numb. All the magic of the storm had left him, and the happiness he’d felt a moment earlier was fading. The night was dark and filled with movement, snow falling fast and silent, the cars parked on the street swelling into soft outlines of themselves. He was afraid of what he’d say if he went home to Laura. He thought of finding a bar somewhere, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone, and when he thought about it, he didn’t especially want to be drunk. Just to be alone for a moment, while he decided where to go next. He stepped into the silence of the park.
Station Eleven is a dystopian novel. Civilization comes to a grinding halt as a flu virus wipes out most of the population. The plot deals with a group of people somehow connect with one actor. His passing occurs on stage suddenly during a performance of King Lear. And a few hours later the cataclysmic virus arrives. Mandel brilliantly weaves the story line before, during and after those events giving us a unique perspective on the human condition.
When Kirsten and August broke into abandon hoses – this was a hobby of theirs, tolerated by the conductor because they found useful things sometimes – August always gazed longingly at televisions. As a boy he’d been quiet and a little shy, obsessed with classical music; he’d had no interest in sports and had never been especially adept at getting along with people, which meant long hours home alone after school in interchangeable U.S. Army-base houses while his brothers played baseball and made new friends. One nice thing about television shows was that they were everywhere, identical programming whether your parents had been posted to Maryland or California or Texas. He’d spent an enormous amount of time before the collapse watching television, playing the violin, or sometimes doing both simultaneously, and Kirsten could picture this: August at nine, at ten, at eleven, pale and scrawny with dark hair falling in his eyes and a serious, somewhat fixed expression, playing a child-size violin in a wash of electric -blue light. When they broke into houses now, August searched for issues of TV Guide. Mostly obsolete by the time the pandemic hit, but used by a few people right up to the end. He liked to flip through them later at quiet moments. He claimed he remembered all the shows: starships, sitcom living rooms with enormous sofas, police officers sprinting through the streets of New York, courtrooms with stern-faced judges presiding. He looked for books of poetry – even rarer than TV Guide copies – and studied these in the evenings or while he was walking with the Symphony.
No matter how bad or tense the situation is or where it occurs on the timeline of the story, Mandel infuses the novel with a glimmer of something beautiful for humanity to consider. Life may be harsh or difficult, but there are still unique things to ponder and continue existing for.
Sometimes the Travelling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it, especially at times when they had to camp between towns, when they were turned away at gunpoint from hostile places, when they were travelling in snow or rain through dangerous territory, actors and musicians carrying guns and crossbows, the horses exhaling great clouds of steam, times when they were cold and afraid and their feet were wet. Or times like now when the heat was unrelenting, July pressing down upon them and the blank walls of forest on either side, walking by the hour and wondering if an unhinged prophet or his men might be chasing them, arguing to distract themselves from their terrible fear.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a dystopian novel which shows great empathy towards the human condition today. While it has a complex plot, it is a fantastic read and ponder.