By Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, Sept. 9, 2014
$24.95, 352 pages
In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world.
Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. Paparazzo journalist-turned-EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a post onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.
Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country.
Since he has nowhere to go and no way to get there, Chaudhary heads for his disabled brother Frank’s highrise apartment, which he stocks with food and sundries to ride out the coming epidemic. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.
The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life, from his childhood on a small island off the British Columbia coast to his three marriages. We meet his first wife, Miranda, a younger woman from his home island who is a budding artist-writer working on a futuristic graphic novel entitled “Station Eleven.” Before long, stunning actress Elizabeth Colton entices the self-absorbed Leander and becomes his second wife, with whom Leander has their only child, Tyler. We are also introduced to Leander’s long-time best friend, Clark Thompson.
The novel then moves forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.
Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. Using scrapped pickup trucks and other vehicles in a modern version of stagecoaches (one emblazoned with the phrase “Survival is insufficient” from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) to cross the frontier, they plod along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, giving alternating performances of classical music and two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter? Interestingly, Raymonde has one of only two copies ever produced of “Station Eleven,” which Arthur Leander had given her to read during her time backstage.
Conflict ensues when members of the TS are confronted by a ruthless religious cult led by a young man called The Prophet. Who are they and where did they come from? Who is this “prophet”? What do they want?
We learn that the only significant group of survivors in the area has been living at the Severn City airport down the coast. People who have been there speak in awestruck terms of the Museum of Civilization there. Who are these people and why did they end up at the airport? How have they managed to create a stable society for 20 years?
Three characters from earlier in the book are among the Severn City group; how did they come to be in a medium-sized city in Michigan when all flights were grounded to stop the spread of the Georgian flu? As in our world, people are connected in countless unseen and unknown ways.
The interactions of the many characters across generations and borders provides a look into human nature, before and after the apocalyptic pandemic, and poses thought-provoking questions about how we choose to live individually and as a society, what it all adds up to, and whether we would make similar choices if we had to start over.
Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible, though some may quibble with the world she imagines (some readers and reviewers have commented that survivors would almost certainly manage to get society back on the grid in less than 20 years). Her insight into the characters is impressive; these moving character studies add noticeably to what might otherwise seem like just a genre novel. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama. The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.