This 2014 National Book Award Finalist is a beautiful affirmation of hope in the face of devastating loss and upheaval. Station Eleven is often characterized as an apocalyptic novel, but I believe this term is too limiting and does a disservice to the author. While the destruction of civilization is at the core of the plot, Mandel is more concerned with the creation of a new world than the destruction of the old one. This is a novel about resilience, about knowing what to hold on to and what to leave behind, and about finding the way home.
Mandel tells her story through the eyes of five characters: Arthur, Javeen, Miranda, Kirsten, and Clark. Arthur Leander is a world famous 50-something actor, several times married, father to one son, and dying of a heart attack on stage in a Toronto production of King Lear. Kirsten is a little girl also involved in the production. Javeen is a paramedic in the audience who tries to help and has another connection to Arthur. Clark is an old friend of Arthur’s, and Miranda is Arthur’s first wife, a business executive who has been drawing and writing a comic book called “Station Eleven” for decades. The day Arthur dies also happens to be the day that a virulent and merciless pandemic of “Georgia flu” is unleashed upon the world. Within a very short time, 99% of the world’s population is dead, governments and infrastructure are in ruins, and modern life’s basic amenities (power, telecommunications, running water) disappear.
Mandel’s narrative switches back and forth among characters and across time. Going backward in time, we learn about Arthur’s childhood on a remote island in British Columbia, his move to Toronto, his friendship with Clark, his budding career and relationship with Miranda, who happens to hail from the same small island. Going forward, we see Kirsten, now a 27-year-old woman, 20 years post-collapse, traveling with a ragtag symphony and acting company, performing Shakespeare for small audiences in the scattered communities of Northern Michigan. They travel on foot with a horse-drawn caravan, armed against brigands they might encounter on the road. Their goal is to make their way to Severn City and the “Museum of Civilization” but a man who calls himself “The Prophet” presents a serious threat to their very survival.
Through her characters, and through the comic book character “Dr. Eleven,” Mandel demonstrates the ways in which people try to change their lives from within and the ways in which they handle change imposed from without. My favorite of all the characters is Clark, Arthur’s college buddy who has a successful career as an “organizational psychologist.” His job is to diagnose the problems of executives and try to show them how to change their behaviors for the better of the companies for which they work. Clark has an epiphany on the job one day when the co-worker of one of his “targets” describes her boss as one of the world’s many “high-functioning sleepwalkers,” those who go through life doing what they think they’re supposed to do and accepting unhappiness and lack of fulfillment as the norm. Clark realizes he has been “minimally present in the world,” unconnected to the people who surround him, people who themselves seem to be more connected to technology than to other physically present human beings.
When the world as we know it ends, Mandel spends little time describing how everything falls apart because that’s not what’s important. Whether or not you believe that a pandemic like the “Georgia flu” could ever play out as Mandel describes, or whether you think that nuclear meltdowns and gas lines exploding would wipe out pretty much everyone who survived [I have had conversations about this with my spouse] — none of this matters. We, the reader, must accept that civilization as we knew it is gone. An enormous change has been imposed from without, and how survivors handle this is the heart of the novel. Mandel gives us a glimpse into what our surviving characters are doing when the end occurs, maybe what they did for the first few months, but then she jumps ahead 15-20 years. “Survival is insufficient” is the banner on the symphony’s caravan, and the fact that 20 years after the destruction, a traveling group of musicians and actors is performing Shakespeare and Beethoven demonstrates the human desire to do more than just get by, but to really live, create, be connected. “Hell is the absence of the people you long for,” is Kirsten’s realization when she is separated from the symphony. She doesn’t remember much of what happened to her during the first year of the new order, she barely remembers her parents, so she doesn’t mourn for the past. As she points out, for children it might be easier to move on because they have fewer memories and can focus more on living in the here and now. Mandel gives us interesting conversations on whether it’s better not to teach the children about a past they cannot comprehend. Why talk about computers and TV and electricity, all long gone? What from the past do we preserve (Shakespeare) and what is jettisoned? And even with Shakespeare, one of the troupe expresses her boredom with doing the same works over and over, and she longs for something new, an original play to perform.
We long only to go home, is a line from the “Station Eleven” comic book that seems to sum up the desires of the Station Eleven novel’s characters. Do we long for that which is gone never to return or do we long for the new “home” that will take its place? The ultimate message that I took away from this novel is optimistic and life affirming, and that is especially evident in Clark. He sort of epitomizes the best of humanity: he feels awe at being present at the creation of a new world; he is able to look at his past with a fondness but not with longing; he redefines what “home” means; and he forges the sort of close human bonds that he lacked before the flu pandemic. While “the end of the world” may have precipitated these events in the novel, I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for the rest of us to find meaningful connections and a “home.” Time to put down the phone and have coffee with a neighbor!