Weirdly, my cannonball thus far has been strongly apocalyptic, which has been… interesting in light of current events. You’d think that this would make me more anxious, but paradoxically I’m looking at the real world and thinking “eh, people are hoarding toilet paper, but every grocery store I’ve been to has been relatively full if you’re not hyper specific about what you want. No one is stealing out of each others carts or housejacking like in The Mandibles” (Lionel Shriver’s book about the financial collapse of the United States I reviewed earlier this year). I read about the virus and the high level of contagion and think “eh, it’s not actually evolving or controlling my brain like the fungus in Cold Storage.” Sure, people have to be careful with isolation, but it’s not a literal nuclear winter like in the bad universe in Dark Matter.” And now, I finally read Station Eleven, which seems to incorporate elements of all of the above, for the first time.
I picked this book up at the library after another member of my work book club nearly picked it and was astonished I hadn’t read it. I got through the first five pages and set it down because I knew I was going to buy it, the opening scene being too good for the rest of the book not to be worth keeping. I mean, I am absolutely NOT one of those people who gives a book a few pages to hook me or I abandon it (I actively hated one of my top five books – The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for the first hundred pages, and then it was like a switch flipped), but the first scene in Station Eleven was “stop reading this until you can give it your full attention” good.
We begin with a production of King Lear (play within a play being the easiest allusion to Shakespeare you can make, and I still didn’t think of it that way until writing this review) with Arthur Leander in the title role, viewed by an EMT who realizes before anyone else that Leander is skipping lines and something is very wrong. We follow Jeevan, the former paparazzi turned paramedic, as he comforts Kristen, a child actress in the play, then leaves and realizes that Leander’s heart attack is far from the worst thing to happen that day.
Leander is the unifying element to the various characters we meet in the aftermath of the Georgian Flu, twenty years after it obliterates society and kills the vast majority of the human population. Finding the connections is half of the joy of the book, so rather than give away the plot I’ll simply praise St. John Mandel for deeply evaluating what complete societal collapse would look like, from survivors lamenting the lost small joys of cappuccinos, to the horror of detoxing from medications stopped cold turkey due to isolation from pharmacies. (Real talk – my kid hid my Lexapro before it was time for a refill once and I honest to god thought I had an infection. Chills, dizziness, muscle aches… it wasn’t pretty.)
The touring company of Shakespearean actors and musicians on a pilgrimage to the Museum of Civilization (their last destination before becoming separated from some members after a run in with “the prophet”) are the echo of Leander’s life before the plague, a constant search for connection, with art as the probe. Without giving too much away, the dawning realization that someone has connected with the same art as you is an epiphany, and even more so when it’s obscure. I hope I never have to find out if it’s even more special when humanity itself is rare.