I can’t say I was blown away by this book. Mandel attempted to make this book all things to all people. It is a dystopic mystery with a stab at social commentary and lots of personal drama all rolled into one, and I think it ultimately fails on a number of levels, but even so, there’s apparently enough interesting material, good intentions, and decent writing to have made it a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.
Respected American actor Arthur Leander is in the midst of performing the title role of King Lear on stage when he is felled by a fatal heart attack, while child actress Kristen watches horrified from the wings. Later that night, a virulent flu pandemic that had been incubating in the east suddenly sweeps the western world, with a 99% mortality rate in a matter of days. Survivors tend to be those who were isolated or who isolated themselves quickly enough, and of these, some became ‘feral,’ others combined in small defensive groups in outlying areas, others joined religious cults, and one large group stuck at a Michigan airport was inexplicably unscathed, and succeeded in establishing a secure, protected and relatively civilized existence surrounded by rusting hulks on the runway. This airport community, plus a constantly traveling ragtag troupe of actors and musicians who bring Shakespeare and classical music to survivors’ hamlets in the environs of Lake Michigan, become the focal points of this post-apocalyptic story.
Twenty years later, and child actress Kristen is now a hardened member of the actors’ troupe who has forgotten her parents and her earlier post-apocalypse years, but still retains a fondly obsessive interest in all things connected to the actor Arthur Leander, to whose pre-catastrophe days our author keeps returning us so that we may learn about his three former wives, young son, and his aging regrets over a life poorly spent. Leander is supposed to be the glue that binds all the stories together, but I found him singularly uninteresting and still cannot fathom why the author chose him as the connective tissue of her story. As the traveling troupe wanders over the post-apocalyptic landscape and we encounter looted cities, the detritus of a lost civilization, weary survivors and depraved predators, author Mandel is at her best, successfully evoking the ambience—if not quite the horror—of a ravaged world. The personal stories of her various characters are often too thin to be truly evocative. The parallel she attempts to draw between the world of her story and the dark world of the Station Eleven comic books which continue to make an appearance, over and over again, thoughout the book, is equally thin, I found.
Mandel makes an effort at social commentary, and one reminiscence of two former businessmen at the airport mocking their own absurd and self-important pre-disaster style of communication is particularly funny, but I felt there was so much more she could have done in dissecting the world before disaster struck. Her ending is uplifting, and I suspect a lot of the appeal of her book stems from this, but overall, I don’t feel she had much new to say in Station Eleven.