Why are we fascinated by our own destruction? There have always been tales of dystopia where civilization is levelled out with only a few lucky survivors left with the mission of rebuilding it. It feels that there has been a proliferation of these stories recently represented in films and literature. Part of it is to do with fear about the environment, political instability, biological warfare and the fragility of the world economy – all valid concerns! It’d be idealistic to consider that by fictionally playing out these potential horrors it will have a galvanizing effect to motivate us to prevent their happening. Maybe sometimes they do. I think they more likely work as good entertainment because it stirs within us that instinctual physiological reaction where the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and drives us to a state of survivalist excitement. We all want to believe that we would be clever and lucky enough to overcome the adversities which can bring civilization to its knees. Most tales that imagine civilization’s downfall are inspired by our society’s failings. However, “Station Eleven” - which envisions a particularly nasty strain of a flu virus causing global calamity - differs from these other tales in a crucial way. The focus is not exclusively on society’s shortcomings, but our own personal loss of self and consequent loss of what’s most important to us in life.
The story begins in a Canadian theatre where a famous actor named Arthur is performing as King Lear on stage and suffers a heart attack mid-show. From this evening forward, society crumbles at an alarmingly fast rate as a virus ravages through and decimates the majority of the world’s population. This is no spoiler. Amidst the action of this specific scene the authorial voice makes us bluntly aware of what’s to come and the limited lifespan of the peripheral characters as we’re reading about them. The rest of the novel follows a select few individuals throughout the oncoming calamity – particularly Kirsten who was a girl acting alongside Arthur on stage and grows into a tough survivor who travels between camps of survivors in the far future with a group of Shakespearian actors and musicians. “Station Eleven” shifts back and forth between the past and twenty years after this event to make connections to do with the character’s relationships and how memories are imprinted, changed over time or lost. The author is clever in the way she gradually releases information and keeps the reader guessing what the fate of her major characters will be and how their stories interconnect. The novel gives equal weight to the development of Arthur’s pre-apocalypse story (a man not even personally affected by the virus) as it does to the heart-racing spread of the killer flu and the struggle for survival.
In focusing on the rise of a celebrity, Emily St John Mandel shows how the underlying meaning of the novel isn’t so much about the possibilities for disastrous failings in our society but the way we lose touch with ourselves. Arthur’s drive to succeed causes him to lose connections to the people who have been most dear to him in life and he even begins to delude himself about his own motivations. Arthur goes through a series of marriages and wonders at one point “Did he actually date those women because he liked them, or was his career in the back of his mind the whole time? The question is unexpectedly haunting.” His ambitions meld with his personal intentions and he feels that he loses touch with his essential self. He asks himself: “Did this happen to all actors, this blurring of borders between performance and life?” When he meets up with his oldest friend during the height of his career his friend Clark observes “He was performing” rather than communicating with him on a genuine level. The loss of personal values and the people most important to him are tantamount to the end of Arthur’s world. The survivors of the population-destroying virus are, in a sense, the survivors of this one man’s fractured identity. Having made both positive and negative effects upon them, they scramble to unite and understand the past through the fog of memory.
This has a subtle, cumulative effect over the course of the novel which builds to a poignancy not often found in most disaster narratives. Added to this are parallels drawn between the characters’ lives and two other different examples of artistically rendered realities. One example this novel’s continuous references back to the play of King Lear which is Shakespeare’s great parable about how our great accomplishments in life can be decimated by greed, arrogance and delusions of self-importance. The other is based on the novel’s title “Station Eleven” which is a comic book created by a character named Miranda about a group of survivors who scramble to live on a man-made exoplanet which has slipped through a worm hole. Copies of this comic disappear and resurface throughout so that this more fantastical story adds a cryptic under-layer to the apocalypse occurring in the primary story of this novel.
The only trouble I had with this novel is that the story of Arthur’s rise to fame isn’t especially compelling. It takes some time to develop real relevancy alongside the grander narrative about the aftermath of the virus. But once I learned more about Arthur’s wives and the people closest to them it became a very important part of the story – both for the larger point the book makes and drawing connections between the characters in pre and post apocalyptic times. There is also a slightly cringe-worthy scene set in London where a cab driver delivers a dubious line of cockney dialogue. But I only felt this way because I’ve lived in London so long myself and it came across more like a cultural stereotype. However, overall this novel is compelling and impressively told.
“Station Eleven” is an adventurous read as well as a highly-poignant one. There are multiple arresting glimpses of apocalyptic horrors and moving existential moments of solitude. It extends the meaning of Jean-Paul Sartre’s great aphorism by positing the chilling question “If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?” The disappearance of others happens quite literally over the course of this novel’s dramatic story, but also applies to the individual’s personal reality when he/she becomes alienated from everyone who means the most to them. It makes you reassess the things and people in your life that you may take for granted – which is always a useful reality check.