I tend to gravitate toward books by authors I’ve read before. But after seeing Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” hailed a must-read multiple times, I decided to go out on a limb.
I’m so glad I did.
“Station Eleven” begins with the death of one man: Arthur Leander, a renowned actor who collapses from a heart attack during a production of “King Lear.” An event that would’ve typically made headlines for weeks, Arthur’s death is quickly eclipsed by a flu pandemic that takes the lives of 99 percent of the world’s population. As a handful of Arthur’s colleagues raise him a post-mortem toast, Mandel makes her first punchy reference to the looming disaster: “Of all of them at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
The pandemic divides the world into “before” and “after,” and Mandel deftly show us both through the lives of characters who are all in some way connected to Arthur Leander. Rather than focusing on the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, most of the novel is set before or fifteen to twenty years after. In Year 20, the story centers on Kirsten Raymonde, a former child actress who had been on stage the night Arthur died. Only eight years old when the flu outbreak hit, she remembers little of the old world and none of the year immediately following its collapse. What she does remember is Arthur. She keeps with her two volumes of “Station Eleven,” a comic book he had given her that hauntingly parallels the current state of the world.
Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a theater troupe that travels from small town to small town performing Shakespeare because “people want what was best about the world.” The Symphony’s motto, “Survival is insufficient,” speaks to the focus of Mandel’s novel. Mandel paints a picture of civilization decades after humanity is all but wiped out. And yet, despite a radical character known as “the prophet,” Mandel’s vision of the new world is fundamentally hopeful. One man starts a newspaper. Another creates a museum in an old airport. We see people who are focused on creating and rebuilding, and this idea is perhaps most clear towards the end of the novel when Kirsten sees “pinpricks of light arranged into a grid. There, plainly visible on the side of a hill some miles distant: a town, or a village, whose streets were lit up with electricity.”
Emily St. John Mandel is a clear master of prose. At times, her writing is so achingly beautiful, it reads more like a poem—which makes sense, since “Station Eleven” is imbued with art. From Shakespeare to the “Station Eleven” comics, Mandel prompts us to consider the role art plays in our lives. I would have to agree with the Traveling Symphony that it is not enough to simply survive; we have to create. And I believe Mandel’s masterful creation, much like Kirsten’s “Station Eleven” comics, will withstand the test of time.
Reviewer Adison Godfrey is a graduate assistant at WPSU.