All this week, as I've been reading Emily St. John Mandel's brilliant new novel, STATION ELEVEN, I've been trying to describe it to people. Inevitably, my powers of description fail me, and I end my faltering attempts at synopsis by saying, "Just trust me and read it." As tempting as it is to have those six words serve as my review here, I'll do my best to summarize and evaluate Mandel's project. But in the end, it still boils down to this: Just trust me and read it.
The book opens with an account of a Toronto production of King Lear, during which Arthur Leander, a famous film actor recently returned to the theater, dies onstage of a heart attack. With him as he collapses are Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparazzo turned paramedic, who attempts to save Arthur's life (and, as he does so, recalls his long and not entirely proud history with Arthur and his multiple ex-wives), and eight-year-old Kirsten Raymonde, who played Lear's daughter, Cordelia, as a child in this particular production of Lear. Both find themselves thinking of Arthur often over the following two decades, although Arthur --- and, as it turns out, upwards of 90 percent of the rest of the world's population --- will not survive the night, or at least the following week.
"STATION ELEVEN is about what is worth preserving --- whether artifacts, relationships, memories or culture --- and makes a passionate argument for recognizing the fragility of human civilization and treasuring even something as humble as a snow globe or as ethereal as a symphony or play."
Just as Arthur is collapsing on stage, the rest of the world is on the verge of collapse from a pandemic known as the Georgian Flu --- a highly contagious, virtually 100 percent deadly version of the swine flu, which kills everyone who contracts it in 48 hours or less. Within days of Arthur's death, air travel has ceased, martial law rules the streets, and Jeevan, having been tipped off about the severity of the pandemic by a doctor friend, has barricaded himself in his brother's Toronto high-rise with several weeks' worth of provisions.
Mandel's narrative, like the memories of those who survive the plague, divides itself into the time Before and the time After the Georgian Flu. The time before is spent recounting the history of Arthur's career, friendships and love affairs, most notably with Miranda, an art student whose lifelong project is a graphic novel series featuring "Doctor Eleven," whose narrative of uncomfortable survival in a hostile environment seems weirdly prescient.
The time after is focused primarily on a group known as the Traveling Symphony, a roving band of musicians and actors that tours the Midwest performing for whatever (populated) small towns they can find --- those that aren't overrun with feral people or cults, that is. Among their number is Kirsten, now 28 years old and still obsessed with the stories of Doctor Eleven from the graphic novels Arthur gave her 20 years earlier.
The Traveling Symphony's motto (with apologies to “Star Trek: Voyager”) is "Survival is insufficient," and, at the risk of trivializing Mandel's novel, that phrase can summarize many of its themes. The book practically teems with affection for the mundane and profound beauties of our admittedly imperfect world, reminding readers continually of all that so easily could be lost --- not just individual lives, or technological advances, but the kinds of things we all take for granted now. STATION ELEVEN is about what is worth preserving --- whether artifacts, relationships, memories or culture --- and makes a passionate argument for recognizing the fragility of human civilization and treasuring even something as humble as a snow globe or as ethereal as a symphony or play.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 10, 2014