Emily St. John Mandel
Alfred A. Knopf
Release Date: September 9, 2014
The world has come to an end as we know it. A deadly virus has eradicated over 90 percent of Earth’s population within the space of a few weeks, too quickly and too thoroughly to allow for a measured or choreographed response.
Yet Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is about so much more than a handful of survivors’ stories of endurance. It’s more than a reinvention – or revisualization – of society following unspeakable tragedy. And thank all that is sacred and holy – it is not a tale of bloody retribution. There is nary a zombie or otherwise shambling undead mutant horror anywhere in the entire book. No nuclear holocausts, no cataclysmic weather patterns, no Mad Max-ian roving bands of renegade hooligans terrorizing more peaceful settlements. Terrible things do happen, yes, and there are heart pounding dangers. But the biggest threat comes from that of which there is no solution, no real course of action. The greatest peril may not be where civilization is going, but what parts of the past we cling to.
What Ms. Mandel is most centered on is how memory shapes perception in circumstances that cannot be imagined or for which there can be no preparation. How does one cope with knowing “what we once were” in the face of the diminishing impact of that past?
The story begins with a death, but not one borne of apocalypse. Instead, an aging film star who has returned to the stage suffers a fatal heart attack while performing the role of King Lear. This man, this moment, becomes the pivot point on which so many other threads in the story turn. His own story up unto that point, the effect his death on his friends and family (mainly ex-wives) and the memories that are evoked of happier, more defining times, the effect of his death on those who were performing with him: a young cast member, the wardrobe “girl” with whom he was having an affair, the man from the audience who recognized what was happened before anyone else and sprang into action in an unsuccessful attempt to stay the hand of fate.
Yet the ties that bind transcend more than mere memory. The former love of the actor by purposeful chance meets with him shortly before his unexpected death and gifts him with the culmination of her labor of love that had consumed her during their years together: the first two in a series of comic books she has written, drawn and produced – only 10 copies in the run – chronicling the futuristic story of a physicist (Dr. Eleven) who lives on a space station (Station Eleven) disguised as a planet. These comic books are meaningless to him now so once his ex-love leaves, he gives them to one of the youngsters in the cast who has taken to lingering in his dressing room (possibly because her wrangler spends so much time there). Two slim volumes get tucked into a Spider-Man backpack and 20 years later remain a treasured possession of the girl – a survivor of the cataclysm – who eventually found a surrogate family in an itinerant performance troop, known as the Traveling Symphony, with whom she performs Shakespeare for the few settlements on their route who have managed to survive over the years. The girl, Kirsten, has taken the best care of the comic books as she can, but they have become dog eared and worn over the years.
The first issue falls open to a two-page spread. Dr. Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight. Small boats move between islands, wind turbines spinning on the horizon. He holds his fedora in his hand. A small white animal stands by his side. (Several of the older Symphony members have confirmed that this animal is a dog, but it isn’t like any dog Kirsten’s ever seen. Its name is Luli. It looks like a cross between a fox and a cloud.) A line of text across the bottom of the frame: ‘I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.’
Kirsten does not – cannot – remember anything from the year of wandering between when she and her brother left their suburban Toronto home (her parents never came back from wherever they were when the epidemic hit) and when they ended up in a settlement in what had been Ohio. She remembers little from before the collapse – not her home address nor her mother’s face – but she does remember with absolute clarity the man who gave her the comics, and how he fell in front of her on stage, how she sat in the shadows, forgotten, as the frantic attempts were made to revive him, and how the unknown man from the audience who had first responded came and sat with her once the paramedics had taken over, calming her, until her wrangler finally remembered to come get her. Now, when the Traveling Symphony comes across an abandoned house that might still hold something useful, she scours it for gossip magazines in the off chance one of them will have a photo of that actor, Arthur, from before he died. She has found a few. Glossy reminders of her past, anchoring her to what was.
Back and forth in time. Memories made, memories lost. Yet ripples of those memories remain. Some survivors desperately work to retain those memories, others actively seek to lose them, to forget, or to shape them. For some the memories overwhelm them and twist them into something far, far removed from what they were. For so many, the memories fade, and perhaps that is for the best. Children who were born after the cataclysm grow bored and restless when their elders talk of what things were like before. Some find too much dwelling on the past upsetting. When is it right to let go? At what point is it better to let go, to change where our gaze falls? I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.
It’s a fascinating premise, deftly woven by a skilled author. It’s understandable that Station Eleven is a bestseller and is one of five finalists for the National Book Award. To build an intriguing novel about the world ending not with a bang or a whimper, but perhaps with a sigh, is brave. This is one journey into that unknown that you won’t want to miss.