10 September 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Summary from Goodreads:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

This is the elevator pitch that sold me on Station Eleven: A travelling troupe of musicians and Shakespearean actors in a post-superflu pandemic North America try to stay alive.  Think David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas but less structured or spread out in time.

I'm in.  I liked Cloud Atlas, I like multiple narratives/perspectives, and I was down for a post-apocalyptic world caused by an influenza super-bug because I'm an epidemiologist and I'm weird like that.

There are three things that stand out for me in this novel.  First, Mandel ever so deftly weaves together the stories told by each narrator into a web centered on one character, Arthur Leander.  The allusion to Cloud Atlas makes so much sense, the way that characters are either Arthur's wife, or ex-wife, or lover, or fellow actor, or child, or EMS provider or extended contacts of those characters.  There doesn't seem to be a formal structure, like the nesting Mitchell used in Cloud Atlas, but it does resemble the chaotic jumble of a puzzle, each piece informing the reader how it fits into the broader narrative of the book.  Second, I completely loved the way in which Mandel realized the gradual breakdown of society as more and more people fall ill and die.  How are supplies transported around the world or even between cities? How is electricity supplied? If the apocalypse comes in the form of disease, who are the first to die and who are the last?  How do survivors form communities?  She created this world so brilliantly - it's anchored in reality and set just enough in the future to be unsettling.  Finally, the idea of the Station Eleven comic books was brilliant.  I agree with karen on Goodreads: if someone doesn't join up with Mandel to actually illustrate the books and make them a real thing there is a missing opportunity.

I have read some criticism that the inclusion of a religious cult/fanatical cult leader was cartoonish or unnecessary.  I have to disagree.  Given the information that we are supplied with through the narrative, the emergence of such a character is not out of the realm of possibility in an end-of-the-world situation.  Look at the Doomsday cults that crop up even now.  I found it very easy to reverse the situation and believe in the creation of a cult for the duration of the novel.

Station Eleven is on track to be one of my favorite books of 2014.  Bravo, Emily St. John Mandel.

Dear FTC: I received access to a digital review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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