Okay, yes, that is a Dicken’s quote, and it would have been more appropriate to use Shakespeare, but the sentiment is there. Being on the verge of a potential pandemic makes reading Station Eleven occasionally challenging, as it’s easy to extrapolate how this could happen. However, the book ends in hope. While the world has gone through an apocalypse, people are still creating and sharing art, lifting each other up by nourishing the soul. And I would hope the same would happen in our world too.
When the Cannonball book club picks were announced, I sort of dismissed it because I had at least ten books on my “I really want to read these right now” pile. Also, I haven’t participated in the past. However, Carriejay’s review of Station Eleven convinced me that I should read this book and onto the library holds it went. Upon being picked up, Station Eleven went to the top of the TBR list and I’m glad it did. Carriejay’s review is an excellent description of the set up and story in the book so I won’t duplicate that information here. Instead here are my thoughts on reading Mandel’s creation and the incredible writing that brought it to life.
“Survival is not sufficient” as a motto speaks volumes to me. Growing up I was active in community theater and played french horn, fifth grade through my senior year. Incidentally, I had the good fortune to be cast in three Shakespeare productions; as Hermia in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, Hero in “Much Ado About Nothing”, and Jessica in “A Merchant of Venice”. Kirsten, and the other symphony members, resonated with me on a personal level. While I haven’t been in a play or picked up an instrument in years, attending theater and musical performances are integral to my well being. If the world falls apart over Covid 19 (I don’t think it will but reading this right now was a bit alarming at times), I can definitely see the appeal of joining a group like the traveling symphony, to continue bringing theater and music to people when most of the arts have disappeared from daily life. For survival is not sufficient, we as human beings need visual and auditory art, it moves and affects us on a deep level in a way that most other things don’t. And I relished that Mandel wrote a book shouting this importance to the world.
The symphony is not some perfect organism, with everyone magically getting along with everyone else to create art and bring joy to the world. They are still human and petty but also capable of more, and being greater than the sum of their parts. Mandel captures society in this microcosm.
The problem with the Traveling Symphony was the same problem suffered by every group of people every where since before the collapse, undoubtedly since well before the beginning of recorded history. Start, for example, with the third cello: he had been waging a war of attrition with Dieter for some months following a careless remark Dieter made about the perils of practicing an instrument in dangerous territory…Dieter hadn’t noticed. Dieter did, however, harbor considerable resentment toward the second horn, because of something she’d once said about his acting. This resentment didn’t go unnoticed – the second horn thought he was being petty-…”
This collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour. But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with…”
I thought it was a neat choice by Mandel to have some of the symphony members adopted their position as their name in this new world, see above; third cello and second horn. While searching for a member, that was not where they had left him, Kirsten and others kept having to correct themselves from saying, ‘sixth guitar’ to his given name, Jeremy. When people inevitably died, or otherwise left, the remaining members did not alter their number to reflect the current state of the symphony, as it had become part of their identity.
I greatly enjoyed the mechanic of experiencing Miranda’s Station Eleven graphic novel throughout the book, a story within a story. Mandel expertly weaves the narrative of the creation of the comic, and the completed graphic novel, as it relates to characters and their current experiences, to be an integral part of her Station Eleven. Her descriptive writing created images in my head of what the art in Miranda’s comic looked like. It wasn’t until afterward that it reminded me a of how Alan Moore used an in-story comic book as part of the storytelling in his Watchmen graphic novel.
Overall Station Eleven is an excellent, if at times creepy, read. Post-apocalyptic prophets, and their religious zeal, can be nightmarish to read about at the best of times. But add the parallels of our current world situation of a flu virus affecting what are probably under reported numbers, and this dystopian tale takes on another level of discomfort. However, had I read this a year ago, I suspect the story would still have been just as affecting to me, for it’s story of resilience of the human spirit in the face of tremendous adversity.