***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a post-apocalyptic story with blessedly little action/adventure, a well-fleshed out ensemble cast, and interesting commentaries on human existence.
Perhaps one of the best compliments I can give Station Eleven is that it snuck into my thoughts over and over again after I finished it, during those quiet moments of the day--as I was falling asleep, on an early-morning run, or putting dinner together.
The best of YA. This is an adult book, but it would be perfect for ALA's Alex Awards (books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults). It's what I hope for every time I open a YA novel of speculative fiction--a careful piece of work, trying to mine important themes, and not rushed sloppily to press because it has a great hook.
The author, Emily St. John Mandel, prefers to think of Station Eleven as literary fiction, but it's not really. I mean, yes, it's not a straight-to-paperback-"USA-today-best-seller!" It's not the literary equivalent of potato chips. But it's not exceptionally beautifully written, and appropriately so: the language perfectly suits the story. It's verging on eloquent, but is more serviceable and less wordy; it's not quite spare, but is thoughtful and direct. It doesn't spend much time navel-gazing, because the business of survival doesn't allow that. This is about as pretty as Ms. Mandel allows herself to get:
She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.
Brief recap, mostly for myself. The books begin with the death of Arthur Leander on a stage in Toronto. He has had three failed marriages--Miranda, Elizabeth, and Lydia--and is in a new relationship with the young woman who wrangles the child actresses in his production of King Lear. A young man named Jeevan, who used to be a paparazzo, but is now training to be an EMT, leaps onto the stage to perform CPR. Arthur dies, and one of the child actresses, Kirsten, sees it happen. Arthur has been nice to her, including giving her a copy of the first two issues of Miranda's nearly one-of-a-kind comics, Station Eleven. Before he dies, we learn much later in the novel, he had been planning to move to Israel to be with his son, Tyler, who was taken there by Elizabeth. He has one last phone call in which he tells Tyler he loves him. They have a closer-than-usual conversation when Arthur engages Tyler on the topic of Station Eleven. When Jeevan leaves the theater, his best friend Hua calls and tells him a virulent flu has been introduced via a flight from Russia. Jeevan buys seven grocery carts full of food and supplies and wheels them one by one through the snow to his disabled brother's apartment, where they barricade themselves in, waiting out the pandemic. Meanwhile, Arthur's best friend, Clark, has been tasked to call Arthur's ex-wives to let them know about his death. Clark used to be a student actor with Arthur, and was a free-spirit who shaved one half of his head and dyed the other half, but now he consults for corporations, making over the professional behavior of slightly dysfunctional managers. On his way to Arthur's funeral, Clark is stranded in the Severn City airport with Elizabeth, Tyler, and dozens of other passengers. It becomes a small town of its own, and Clark tends to a "Museum of Civilization" to pass the time. Elizabeth and Tyler leave the compound with a cult after four years, Tyler already seeming a bit touched in the head. The book flashes forward and back to several dates, but most of the time we're in Year 25: the twenty-fifth year after the flu, following The Traveling Symphony, which includes Kirsten, her best friend August, her former lover, Sayid, several musicians, and a leader named The Conductor. They go to a town called St. Deborah by the Lake to collect two members of their symphony, Charlie and Jeremy, who stayed behind two years ago to have their baby. But the town has changed and is in the hands of the prophet. The symphony gets in trouble with this zealot, leaves, is followed, and some of them are ambushed. The prophet's dog, Luli, is mysteriously named for Dr. Eleven's comic-book Pomeranian. The symphony makes its way to Severn City, where it is reunited with Charlie, Jeremy, and their baby Annabelle.
Some themes explored:
1.How important is art in our human lives? Un-subtly, Ms. Mandel has her caravan of musicians and actors emblazon their vehicle with the Star-Trek phrase, "Because survival is insufficient." But more subtly, art is everywhere. The towns they visit want to see productions of Shakespeare; music and theater are viable ways of supporting yourself after the apocalypse. Clark's museum curation is not just concerned with artifacts, it has become art--that's what red stiletto heels become when the world has collapsed. Miranda creates her comics in the absence of an audience, for the sake of doing art:
“What’s the point of doing all that work,” Tesch asks, “if no one sees it?”
“It makes me happy. It’s peaceful, spending hours working on it. It doesn’t really matter to me if anyone else sees it.”
A testament to the purity of art: Miranda doesn't even sign her work, using her initials, "M.C." instead. And a quarter of a century after Miranda's death, Kirsten and Tyler are still captivated by her art.
2. The ephemeral nature of existence. There are only hours between when Miranda learns of Arthur's death--the man she "once thought she'd spend the rest of her life with"--and she herself is dead.
3. The illusion of control. Expiring on a lounge chair on the beach, Miranda imagines the ships off shore have not been infected--the crew might live. But we know from seeing the web of deaths that survival isn't something you can plan on. Clark's entire existence highlights what is important in life: his job is rendered completely meaningless by the collapse. (Almost as a relic for his museum, he completes the last "360" report he was hired to write--about a man who is surely dead, for bosses who are dead, and a company that no longer functions.) His museum collection is the definition of obsolescence. His private thoughts are spent on Robert, his boyfriend who has probably died. Similarly, Arthur's existence, even though it pre-dates the flu, was spent burdened with fame when it turned out it was really love he was after.
4. The impermanence of life. Arthur explains his desire to become an actor: “First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” But we readers have seen 99.9% of the population disappear, and all the mechanisms for remembering them are gone.
5. The importance of relationships, and the essential goodness of human beings. We can't live without each other, but love always leads to loss ("What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you've lost."). Sigrid Nunez's review of Station Eleven in The New York Times complained that the future wasn't bleak enough in this book ("readers may wonder why few bad guys have made it to year 20....the hairs never rose on the back of my neck"), but that's missing the point of the novel. This is Year 25 (not 20), and the survivors have mostly figured out how to live and let live. The worst is behind them. It's never portrayed as easy: Jeevan hears gunshots from the apartment in the first weeks of the pandemic; every town has a sentry; everyone carries a weapon; people on the road sleep in shifts; Kirsten has killed four people. But Ms. Nunez should do the math: the virus killed 99.9% of the population, which means not many people even survived the pandemic, and fewer still survived the violence afterward. For instance, if there are 300 million people in the United States, that means only 300,000 survived the Georgia flu. How many bad guys do you want to have in a population that small and that spread out? I think Ms. Mandel is saying that when everything is wiped out, the population distills into small pockets of brutality among the otherwise essential goodness of humanity. That sounds about right to me.
We're comfortable watching characters die. I was surprised by the fact that I was okay with watching important characters die. Part of this is due to the pervasiveness of those themes above: the world is an impermanent place, and as a reader you get used to that fact. But part of it is the structure of the novel. Arthur is a main character, and he dies on the first page. We've got that out of the way; we've lost him before we care about him. Then we grow to care about him later. This is true of many of the characters: we know ahead of time that they're gone. The implication is that the "getting there" (to their deaths) is what life is about.
We're comfortable not knowing what happened to characters. We're also okay with not knowing everything about everyone. It fits with the the blackout of information that the characters experience, and also with those themes of loss of control and impermanence. We see a whole group from the Severn City airport fly off to L.A., never to be heard from again. We see people on the hillside to the south of the airport who have figured out electricity again, but we don't know who they are or whether Kirsten will find them. There is a lack knowing how Elizabeth (the prophet's mom) died. We're comfortable not knowing what Kirsten has forgotten from her childhood: watching her brother die of an infected nail-puncture in his foot is enough of a hint that we can guess her amnesia covers something much worse. We don't mind not knowing who the other two tattooed knives represent on Kirsten's wrist. We don't care that we've never met Victoria of "Dear V" fame.
Some things I admired:
1. The small things, like seeing Kirsten as a nearly translucent blond waif as a child, someone Miranda judges will become a groomed, perfect, pampered adult. But we know that she has become a battle-weary young woman, missing teeth, and tattooed with symbols representing the people she has been forced to kill. We also learn of the cast's diversity almost incidentally.
2. I enjoyed the way the chapters had little reverence for time and chronology, and "gave away" past and future information: we read chapter openings like, "three weeks before X died, he was in a hotel lobby..." This technique gave a sense that people are both alive and dead at all times, which ties in nicely with the notion that memories are all that preserve us after we're gone.
3. Pieces of this book pop into my head at random moments, which always means there's more fodder there than at first glance. I awoke this morning thinking, "How did Jeevan help his brother to die?" And "What was Ms. Mandel trying to say with the dust-free child's tea set?" The fact of Arthur being on the cusp of reaching out to Tyler before he died--the reader knowing that Tyler may have grown up entirely differently--is more poignant on reflection.
4. I like the way we quickly see that many of the characters will be linked somehow. But they're not overtly linked, just delicately intertwined. It's a nod to the web of human relationships across the globe. Ms. Mandel doesn't stress the connections. I found myself hoping for Clark and Kirsten to figure out their mutual attachment to Arthur (and I was worried Clark would die before they had their talk the next morning), but Ms. Mandel saw no need to show us that conversation, and I admire that. We just know, later, that they've planned that Kirsten will always leave one rotating Doctor Eleven comic with Clark for his Museum of Civilization as she passes in and out of Severn City.
5. I appreciated the way the prophet died, with no giant, bad-guy climax. Like most everyone else in the world, he died in a way he (and we) least expected.
In sum: This book hits the sweet spot for me--speculative fiction and a strong hook, but with thoughtful attention to writing and themes. This is what I want more YA novels to be like. A favorite of 2015.