When I read that Station Eleven would be a book club read, I decided to borrow it from my local library. I wasn’t familiar with it, but I knew that it came recommended by many in the CBR community. I had no idea this book would be so beautiful and so moving, the first book I’ve read in 2020 that I truly love.
Station Eleven is the story of our world before and after its collapse as the result of a pandemic so devestating that it makes the Black Death look like a typical cold and flu season. On the night everything begins to unravel, Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack onstage during a performance of King Lear. Over the course of the novel, which moves back and forth between pre- and post-collapse worlds, author Emily St. John Mandel interconnects the stories of the individuals both central and peripheral to Arthur’s life. From Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor who witnesses his death, to Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic who tries to revive him, to Arthur’s best friend Clark, to his multiple ex-wives, the story moves outward in concentric circles to encompass more and more people into the central plot, leaving one with the feeling that all of humanity is linked. Or perhaps it’s not circles after all, but a network of connections, like circuitry on a motherboard, with each person’s actions reaching out like an electronic pulse to touch someone else.
After Arthur’s death and the end of civilization as we know it, the story jumps ahead twenty years into the future, to an earth without electricity, or gas, or air travel. As part of a nomadic troupe of actors and musicians known as “the Symphony,” Kirsten travels from place to place and performs in small communities. Beauty is a key theme in this novel, but it’s more than just humanity finding peace in Shakespeare or classical music or even Star Trek. The novel celebrates not only artistic achievement, but technological achievement as well. Kirsten recalls how, in one small town the Symphony visited, they met an inventor who had rigged up a stationary bicycle to be able to power a laptop. The inventor had higher aspirations than electricity though; he was looking for the Internet. Mandel writes, “A few of the younger Symphony members had felt a thrill when he’d said this, remembered the stories they’d been told about WiFi and the impossible to imagine Cloud, wondered if the Internet might still be out there somewhere, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.” We spend so much time thinking about the downside of technology–the ugliness that often lurks on the Internet, the loss of our connection to the natural world–but the simple elegance of that passage made me want to beg forgiveness from cyberspace for every negative thought I might have had about it.
This commonplace beauty and loss of the things we take for granted is highlighted repeatedly in the novel, such as when Clark, witnessing possibly the last plane to ever take off, wonders to himself, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight? The improbability of it.” At the same time, however, the foolishness of the pre-collapse world and our focus on the irrelevant is often mocked. In a passage that hit close to home for me, Clark and another survivor named Garrett are commiserating about the corporate-speak that comprised their typical communications in the old days. Garret mourns, “Why did we always say we were going to shoot emails? . . . . Why couldn’t we just say we were going to send them? We were just pressing a button, were we not?” “Not even a real button,” Clark responds, “A picture of a button on a screen.” Since finishing this book, I’ve started forcing myself to type out the full-length “t-h-a-n-k-s” at the end of online chats with coworkers, forgoing the much more efficient but soul-crushing “thx.” And while I always sort of shuddered when I’d hear people talk about “leaning in to optimize efficiency,” or interrupting a meeting for a “bio break,” these phrases are taking on a more sinister and desperate connotation for me now.
I enjoyed this book so much, I’m almost sad to have to return it to the library, except that I’ve already added it to my “must own” list. I suspect that reading this novel at different stages in my life will cause me to make different connections, feel different pulses triggering me to ruminate about beauty, technology, religious fanaticism, art, fidelity, history, priorities. And of course, hope.