When I first read the review for this book in Entertainment Weekly, I thought to myself, “Do I really want to read another post-apocalyptic novel?” Over the last several years, I’ve experienced the world ending by plague, zombies, some sort of electronic pulse, and an alien invasion or two. Though my initial response was, “Maybe not,” I’m glad that I picked this book off the bestseller shelf at my local library. It IS a novel about the end of the world as we know it, but it’s also about life, art, the connections between people, and the vagaries of chance.
There are many echoes of Stephen King’s The Stand here—a very contagious flu-like disease that kills almost 98% of the population, a story that flits between a series of characters that you suspect/know will connect later on, and a messianic figure who preys on the survivors of this epidemic. However, it’s the differences that really make this novel sing. To be clear, I really enjoyed The Stand but it was all about “after” and about “plot”—the chain of events that lead a group of disparate characters to an epic showdown.
In Station Eleven, the arrival of an incredibly virulent version of the flu is the turning point in the lives of most of the characters—so much so, that survivors see time in terms of the years since the epidemic. However, one of the main characters of the book dies hours before the flu hits (and I’m not giving anything away because it happens on the first page). Arthur Leander, a 51-year-old Hollywood actor is playing Lear on a Toronto stage when in the middle of the mad scene, he clutches his chest and goes down. An EMT in training sitting in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, runs to the stage to attempt to resuscitate Arthur but is unsuccessful. As the paramedics arrive, Jeevan ends up comforting a young child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, who was hired to play one of the daughters Lear hallucinates in the scene.
The story proceeds from this event, tragic at that moment, but soon to be eclipsed by the nightmare to come, but also begins to jump around. We see 20 years in the future—when Kirsten is part of a troupe of traveling actors and musicians that tours a route along the great lakes—moving from outpost to outpost in this new world. The troupe, called the Traveling Symphony, puts on Shakespeare plays and classical concerts because, as is written on their horse-drawn wagon, survival is insufficient. As in Shakespeare’s time, death is everywhere—from marauders on the road to minor illnesses and injuries made major by the lack of antibiotics and other medicines. However, we also move back in time—following characters, some who make it through the flu and some who don’t—but who all connect back to Arthur Leander. There are his ex-wives, Miranda and Elizabeth; there’s Clark, a friend from Arthur’s early days as an aspiring actor in Toronto; and even Jeevan, who had prior connections to Arthur before that night in the theatre.
If you want a tightly plotted novel like The Stand (or more recently, The Passage) with a clear moment of reckoning, this is not the book for you. There is tension and danger and conflict but Mandel is more interested in exploring the things that connect us and what remains after a lot of the trappings of civilization are peeled back. There’s a lot to ponder in this novel and though it provokes a bit of existential angst (what I now call the Oryx and Crake effect), it’s one of the more optimistic end-of-world texts I’ve read.