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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.


Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

Thinking back on Station Eleven in an effort to summarize it I was struck by the ways it seems familiar in the apocalyptic tradition but the story had felt so new in reading. The sensation is like seeing a person from work out on a Saturday night, something so familiar made alien, and, in this case, wonderful. Station Eleven comes not to abolish apocalyptic fiction, but to fulfill it's promise.


It's familiarity shouldn't be a surprise, the collapse of civilization is well-trod territory and, unlike science-fiction proper, it is defined by loss, so the genre is bound to conform to certain strictures: reusable weapons like arrows and knives feature heavily, empty buildings, and danger on all sides. 


What does Station Eleven do differently?


Structurally, it jumps around in time--a lot--but in a way that is easy to follow; author Emily St. John Mandel is consistent in establishing the time in the first few lines when she moves us to a different setting. Juxtaposing the world in-or-around the year 2014 with the world twenty years after the virus, where the heart of the action takes place raises it above the level of a survival story. The effect is that Station Eleven seems to have a lot to say about lives today.


In "Year Twenty" after the virus, we are following Kirsten Raymonde and the Traveling Symphony which visits settlements along the shore of Lake Michigan performing concerts and Shakespeare plays. The central question of the novel is tattooed on Raymonde's arm and painted on one of the horse-drawn pick-up trucks used by the symphony, "Survival is insufficient." (Trekies may recognize this from a 1999 episode of Star Trek: Voyager, which is acknowledged, somewhat self-consciously, by characters in the book.) 


If survival is insufficient, what is? Mandel's image for the post-apocalyptic future is surprisingly hopeful but not very pleasant.  It's a pretty far down the line when we are looking in and there it is pretty clear that there is no rescue coming, but there is some stability returned to this world.


In the "present" we see the night the virus arrives in Toronto where Raymonde, at age eight, is in a production of King Lear with the famous actor Arthur Leander. It is Leander that stands at the crossroads of the various stories: his ex-wife Miranda working on creative project before the virus, the paramedic who ran on the stage to help him watching the world collapse outside his window, his oldest friend Clark Thompson, and Raymonde.


Miranda's stories provide some of the best passages of the novel, meditations on life, love, work, legacy, growing up and creativity. Her chapters belong to her alone. She is not in the major plot points, not in person anyway, though she has a presence throughout the story which is worth a post all its own.


We are told little about the violent first year, except that it was very violent. For those who made it through, there is a semblance of normalcy in year twenty, and with that people seem ready to wonder if there is more to life, if survival is, in fact, "insufficient."  One man has started a library and a newspaper he distributes in his town and shares with travelers to spread beyond. There is the Traveling Symphony, small schools have been organized, another man has rigged a stationary bike to power a laptop, even the cult they encounter suggests a thirst for something more to aspire to than making it through the next day.


I have encountered endings in recent years that have bothered me in a way I have had trouble articulating ... or writing, as the case may be. Station Eleven has proved a good counterpoint to those. Coincidences and unlikely situations come with the territory, and in Station Eleven they feel earned. That is not to say there is no surprises, just that those turns make you say, "Of course!" not "WTF?" The breadcrumbs are there through the story, otherwise insignificant details that make it a process of discovery and show forethought.


Four and a half stars, enjoy.