Review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
by Emily St. John Mandel
What’s that? Sorry, I got distracted by how I’m leaving horrific fingerprints every time I touch the cover of this book because of that slick finish some fancy paperbacks have.
I’ve been listening to Of Monsters and Men’s latest album, Beneath the Skin, obsessively lately (even though it came out last year, I only just discovered it recently, because that’s how plugged into the music scene I am!). It is pretty much the perfect soundtrack to Station Eleven. The same sweeping, wide-open sounds I loved from their first album are back and accompanied by haunting suggestions of wilderness, perfect for the post-apocalyptic setting of this story. (“Black Water” is my jam.)
Emily St. John Mandel’s lovely, literary apocalypse novel reminds me a lot of Player One: What is to Become of Us. With its non-linear narrative of interconnected yet dispersed stories and characters, its meditative qualities and an almost pathological resistance to plot development, Station Eleven is everything the literature snob who doesn’t want to be caught reading “actual” science fiction desires. Even the cause of the apocalypse—a virulent, deadly flu—is highbrow, and there is nary a zombie or vampire in sight. Although speculative in its depiction of a future that has not happened (yet), Station Eleven carefully confines itself to a realistic vision of a post-apocalyptic world.
Mandel, much like Coupland, takes a snapshot approach to the end of civilization in which we see a small group of people gradually realizing that their lives, as they know them, have changed forever. Both authors focus not so much on the practical difficulties of survival as they do the ramifications of civilization’s end. Whereas much of the current glut of post-apocalyptic entertainment emphasizes the insanity of us urbane, 21st-century humans having to subsistence hunt and survive without antibiotics and how we’ll all be terrible people to one another—I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead—Mandel is much more interested in how culture and education adapt to the new normal.
Station Eleven is far more optimistic a vision of the future than some of its cousins in this field. True, the first twenty years, largely elided, are rough and even violent. And there are cults, with polygamist Prophets who will take your guns, but those are just part of the landscape now. What matters, Mandel insists, is that there remains some continuity of human history and civilization. The human species, like most species on this planet, is resilient and adaptable. Our species would survive even if our society takes the hit.
Station Eleven also reminds me of Saga. Indeed, I think this book would itself make a fine graphic novel. Mandel has quite visual writing (a strange observation from a reader who himself doesn’t visualize much as he reads), and I can well imagine the interesting ways a skilled artist would contrast the world pre-apocalypse with the world post-apocalypse, in terms of inking and colours and lighting. There is a fertility to the imaginative nature of Station Eleven’s world. It is a captivating novel not because of terrible events or the nihilism of the end of the world but because you just want to know what else is out there. What is over the next ridge for the Symphony? Do they find more civilization? What happens next?
The dual nature of Station Eleven’s narrative also allows for a contrast between the perceptions of time pre- and post-apocalypse. In particular, Clark looks back with amusement at how obsessed he used to be with improving the efficiency of companies and their executives. He recounts a time he realized how he was just as “absent” from the real world as any number of surrounding pedestrians who were all glued to their phones. Our society has in this past century both quantified and quantized our lives with heretofore unanticipated precision. While this has resulted in many improvements in technology and infrastructure, culturally it has a lot of problems. Mandel doesn’t go to the extreme of suggesting that the end of civilization allows us to attain some kind of idyllic pastoral existence. But she does demonstrate that our construction of an artificial sense of time is incredibly fragile and dependent, much like our economy, on the consensual hallucination we all share.
It’s no coincidence that Kirsten, as close as this book gets to any one protagonist, is old enough to remember, just barely, the world before its end, but young enough to have adapted to the new one. I mentioned before how I wouldn’t survive, wouldn’t like to survive—and that’s because I’m just now becoming old enough to get set in my ways. Mandel observes that the young flourish and adapt; if our digital technology stopped working today, the children born tomorrow would shrug, because it’s hard to miss what you didn’t have.
If this review is rather disjointed and not all that related to the actual book, it’s mainly because I read Station Eleven over a long period (six days) during which I was sick and working an inordinate amount, so my reading happened in short and sporadic bursts. This is a novel that does not so much demand your attention as it does politely come up to you, tap you on the shoulder, and request the honour of you giving it a modicum of attention, if that isn’t too much of an inconvenience. Indeed, this might be a very Canadian post-apocalyptic novel, and I don’t say that simply because Toronto is featured. Mandel’s writing reminds me a lot of Charles de Lint’s, even if her setting is not quite as fantastic. Her characters, even the American and British ones, have a kind of crispness I associate with Canadian writers—it’s hard to describe, nor am I suggesting it’s necessarily superior to foreign authors, merely different.
Mandel’s writing amplifies this. I keep thinking about one passage in particular, where Mandel describes the whirlwind of Miranda’s divorce from Arthur from the former’s point of view:
In four months Miranda will be back in Toronto, divorced at twenty-seven, working on a commerce degree, spending her alimony on expensive clothing and consultations with stylists because she’s come to understand that clothes are armour … she comes to a point after four or five years when she travels almost constantly between a dozen countries and lives mostly out of a carry-on suitcase, a time when she lives a life that feels like freedom and sleeps with her downstairs neighbour occasionally but refuses to date anyone, whispers “I repent nothing” into the mirrors of a hundred hotel rooms from London to Singapore and in the morning puts on the clothes that make her invincible, a life where the moments of emptiness and disappointment are minimal….
I think I could have stopped reading at “puts on the clothes that make her invincible” and loved this book. It’s one thing to tell a good story; it’s quite another to write beautifully while doing so. Plus, Mandel would have won me over with her allusions to Star Trek: Voyager (because any casual can reference something Kirk or Spock said, but if you reference a specific episode of Voyager you’re hardcore).
I might get ornery on occasion about the way some books arbitrarily escape the ghetto of science fiction to live the literary life. Nevertheless, some books deserve the hype. Station Eleven is one of them. It’s thoughtful without being ponderous, meditative without being slow, interesting without trying too hard.