To write about writing is a strange exercise. When we view stories, we usually view them, somewhat, as experiences, more than as texts. This adds a dynamic dimension, one that is difficult to capture when reviewing and critiquing literature.
I talk from the point of my experience of the literature in these writings, but there is undeniable a connection, between the quality of language, of development of setting and character, and the use of the devices of writing, in how the experience of the reader is shaped. In this, there is the potential for talking of the quality of literature.
Station eleven, is in genre at home in speculative fiction, it bases its story on an imagined premise, one that might be ghostly and ghastly familiar to a reader today, but that still is very much imagined.
We are, in Station eleven, presented the end of the world, as we know it. The device of the end is a flu pandemic, where 99.9 percent of the world population dies. That is not the point of the story, these are circumstances, not theme, and this is a story, not about pandemics, but about people. Interestingly, long sequences of the text take place before the pandemic, and in its core this is a story of who we are as people, and how we change with circumstance.
The narrative of the story is divided, between different characters and differences of time and place. The point of view varies, and the use of third person personal point of view, shifting between different characters, gives interesting angles to the plot. This is also where it becomes obvious that the pandemic is not the actual focus of the book. This is a story about before and after, about contrast of time, place and circumstance, but also about all the things that stay the same, all that we carry with us.
The setting, time and place of the story in full, gives us a scope of about fifty years. Thirty before the end, twenty after, but the main storylines take place around the last twenty-four hours before the end, and about fifteen years later.
The day leading up to the end centers around a play, a performance of King Lear, where three main characters are present, Arthur Leander playing Lear, Kirsten Lemonde playing a small part in the same play, and Jeevan Chaunray attending the play in the audience. A dramatic event occurs, and for a moment the three characters connect with each other, before the three storylines diverge. These three, and the storyline of Miranda, are the four most central stories of the text, and it is via these the reader is given the most complete view of the timeline of the whole story.
We only view the past, the years up until just before the end in Arthurs narrative. Here we meet the actor, seeing his life and career fading into twilight, and we experience his reflection on his choices and him questioning what, of value, remains.
Arthur does not follow us into the apocalypse, even though we spend a considerable part of the story looking through his eyes, I read him as someone whom is meant to represent the before of the story, both the final days leading up to the end, but also the thirty years before that.
To me what stands out the sharpest is the fact that Arthur achieves everything he wants, he succeeds in his career, in love, in fame, in everything he thinks matters, only to realize it leaves him empty. There is something circular in his life and behavior, three marriages, all failed, points to him chasing the wrong solutions to his feeling that something is lacking. This leads him into a form of melancholy nostalgia, a central trait for the character, he longs for the past, but even that never crystalizes into any kind of answer.
This melancholy nostalgia for what was, or what we imagine was, is a central theme in the book, and a recurring trait in many of its characters.
Kirsti, the child actress, I feel sort of centers the text, she is the character that links many of the others, through the plot. Her story is divided, between childhood and the present, and in between we find a sharp divide, as she cannot remember the first year after the plague. We are introduced to her childhood, and follow her travels with the travelling symphony, and we see most of the conflict with the prophet from her point of view. We follow her mostly on the road with the travelling symphony, a group of musicians and actors, whom travels from place to place, performing Shakespeare plays and holding concerts. There is a form of mantra for this activity, the idea that survival is not enough is presented, both as writing on their lead carriage, and as one of Kristi’s tattoos. Life must be more that survival, and art is an important element to life.
Arthur and Kristi end up being the two central characters in the text, not necessarily because they take up the most room, but because those are the most complete stories we get to follow, the wealth of characters in the story is understandable, but it does lead to a few issues.
Jeevan is another character in the text, he functions as our perspective to the catastrophe, of course an integral part of the plot, but the character then seems to pretty much then disappear from the text, until we get an explanation of where he ended up years later. This part of the novel feels a little bit like an afterthought rather that a natural part of the overall narrative, we get in his story a bit of an idealized ending, where he has found meaning, in helping others, in being useful, in having a family. Compared to other storylines this one feels a little on the simple side, despite paralleling contrast important to the character. Jeevan is a man of many trades, that has just “found his way”, and found meaning when we meet him in the text. He is in training to be a paramedic, after spending time being an entertainment journalist, a paparazzo, and tending bar. He reflects a lot over of feelings of emptiness when concerning fame and the entertainment industry, a trait we see paralleled in Arthurs story, and there is a clear contrast between before and now. These characters cross each other’s paths several times in the story, mostly in the retrospective sections told through Jeevans and Arthurs point of view. This aspect of the story leads to a thematic element, there is a discussion present here, of the unreality of fame, and the divides that can appear between people when dealing with it. This is where the novel comes closest to making a form of moral point, there is here a critique of the ideas surrounding celebrity, and it is contrasted with elements that are commonly associated with the good, and the useful, such as Jeevan going from paparazzo to paramedic.
Jeevan is a character that often seems to represent change in the story, and his own story comes to a close at a point of contentment, of calm, and moves pretty close to a “happily ever after” conclusion. This is, as mentioned, a character that feels a little left behind at a certain point of the text, and I think this is symptomatic of an issue in this novel. It is quite the beautiful novel, don’t get me wrong, but there are flaws, and those all seems to stem from the ambition of telling many different stories, while touching upon several different themes.
This is less prominent when we come to the storyline of Miranda. Miranda is an artist, and an executive, as well as Arthurs first wife, this demonstrates the same divide discussed around fame, in the other storylines. For a time, Miranda is reduced to a form of bystander, negatively affected by Arthurs fame, this strongly contrasts with the readers’ view of the character. Miranda is confident and intelligent, and feels greatly reduced in the role of “wife of famous actor”. She is a character strongly defined by her project of self-realization, in a truer sense than we often see in fiction. Miranda realizes that to find a kind of peace, she needs to be enough, in herself, she needs to work, and make her art, for herself, not for the recognition of others. Maybe that is what Arthur is missing, and that might have doomed their marriage from the beginning. This element of being, in one selves enough, is a very powerful idea in the story, albeit Miranda ends up alone, there is not a feeling of loss in this, and in no way does the story make her into a tragic figure, to my great relief. We see some of the same tendencies towards a form of nostalgia with Miranda, but it is much less resigned and melancholic than what we see with Arthur.
Another central theme is the experience of beautiful moments, in the moment. The momentariness of beauty, of happiness, of almost a form of serenity is something that is also a thematic link between all the characters we meet in the story. From the experience of looking out over the city of Toronto, from a calm and beautiful office setting, isolated, quiet, at peace, to moment walking through the woods, again in calm and quiet. These moments are especially well written, and carefully crafted to carry over to a reader, bringing with them a feeling of ease, of calm, of beauty.
There is a device here that parallels this, this idea of a life told in moments, the story takes its title from a story within a story, Miranda is writing and drawing a series of comic books, Station Eleven. We are introduced to the plot of the story and characters in this text too, and I think the setting of Station eleven is particularly important here, it takes place on a space station, hurtling through space, far away, and getting farther every moment, from earth. There are two groups of people on Station Eleven. Those who insist to keep going, and those whom desperately want to turn around, to go home. Here the parallel doubles. The comic book is, as a genre, a story told in moments, and the conflict between continuance or return I read as a parable to time, and how time is approached as a theme in the main story. The characters of this novel are torn, between nostalgia and longing for a past that might even not have been, and that surly will never return, and the occasional beauty of the now, as well as the need to continue forward.
So, final thoughts, in this hefty text, that still leaves a lot of Station eleven untouched.
This is first of all a beautifully written novel, the use of language is considerate and intentional, where many dystopic novels tend towards dwelling on the ugliness, this is a story that often emphasizes beauty. This is also a wildly ambitious novel, that might be a tiny bit worse off for it. Not all themes or characters are shaped to a feel of completion, of course this is a risk with using several points of view, and attempting a grand scope of this kind is incredible difficult. All in all, this is a really wonderful novel, and what really sets it apart is the loving craftsmanship in the use of language. To see a writer use the absolute horror of a worst case scenario, and end up with a text of such beauty, encompassing so much more than disaster, is a true rarity, and I wholeheartedly recommend Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel