Emily St. John Mandel
How come when mainstream, award-winning novels flirt with sci-fi and fantasy, it seems to involve the apocalypse?
Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize with the bleak, cannibal-filled The Road. And now Emily St. John Mandel is being talked up as a winner as well for her brilliant Station Eleven. It lost the National Book Award to Phil Klay’s post-war Redeployment, but it is still placing high on year-end lists across the country.
And at least Mandel’s novel doesn’t feature cannibalism.
Station Eleven follows the aftermath of a global pandemic that killed 98% of the population. Society has collapsed — electricity and gasoline are memories, the few survivors banded together in small communities within relatively close proximity of each other. Barbarians and worse lurk in the wilds, and even in former metropolises like Chicago.
The novel follows a handful of characters interwoven by their relationship to a former Hollywood star, Arthur Leander, who dies on stage while performing King Lear in the opening pages of the novel. We meet Leander’s would-be savior Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparazzo who stalked Leander years before and now has become an EMT. Also Kirsten, an eight-year-old actress who is performing in the same production. And a parade of college friends and ex-wives that Leander has left in his wake.
Leander’s death is merely prologue and Mandel hammers the even darker direction of the novel with the closing lines of the introduction:
“In the lobby, the people gathered at the bar clinked their glasses together. “To Arthur,” they said. They drank for a few more minutes and then went their separate ways in the storm.
Of all of them there 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.”
From there the novel jumps between timeframes — we see Leander’s rise as a star coupled with the survivor’s lives 20 years later. Chaudhary has emigrated south, working as a healer. Kirsten is now a member of the “Traveling Symphony”, a group of itinerant musicians and actors who visit towns in what was once Michigan, performing classical concerts and Shakespearean plays. She searches the towns they visit for snatches of stories about Leander, and holds dear a pair of comic books, dubbed “Station Eleven” that he gave her the night of his death.
Mandel also introduces us to a new religion that has risen since the apocalypse, led by a mysterious and ruthless prophet. And we learn about a group of survivors attempting to preserve the memories of life before the collapse, converting an abandoned airport into the mythical “Museum of Civilization”. And like Chaudhary and Kirsten, these groups are also entwined with Arthur Leander’s life.
There is little to criticize in Station Eleven. I did, however, find Chaudhary’s story a bit scant, and the conflict with the mysterious Prophet a bit too pat. The optimistic ending at the “Museum of Civilization” also felt a little undercooked.
But those quibbles didn’t mar the novel too much.
Unlike McCarthy’s nihilistic The Road, Mandel presents an optimistic future where although society has splintered, the arts are preserved, and are seen as a bridge to the former civilization. The Traveling Symphony’s caravan bears the message “Because survival is insufficient.” That quote, from Star Trek: Voyager is a beautiful sentiment not often seen in post-apocalyptic literature.