I finally put this on my reading list after one of the CBR13 happy hours. Someone mentioned that Emily St. John Mandel had a new book coming out that they were looking forward to, and somehow I pulled that thread and made my way back to Station Eleven. I had been aware of it before that conversation, yet the blurb had never struck my fancy, likely because I have a very complicated relationship with dystopian fiction. Frankly, and as has been noted on this site much more eloquently before, the political and public health environments of the last few years have not made dystopian fiction more attractive to me – I need an escape when I read! Beyond the dystopian premise of the book, I really had very little idea of the plot, and I think this is the best way to approach Station Eleven. For this reason and because it has been out for sometime, so better plot summaries are available, I will focus on my feelings (so many feelings!) and thoughts in this review, for the most part.
Station Eleven is a ‘slow burn’ book. You meet characters who appear to have no connection and follow the branches of their lives – for example, Javeen appears dramatically, trying to save someone’s life in a theater, and then we hurtle through time from his prior careers as a paparazzi and as an entertainment journalist to his relationship with his brother, Frank, to his tortured pathway as the world ends and he staggers through it eventually to a place of contentment. There are many branches that cross; in the hands of a less skilled writer, these ‘coincidences’ would have taken me completely out of the story, but Mandel handled them deftly. A major plot vehicle she uses is the Traveling Symphony troupe, who go from settlement to settlement entertaining residents with music and Shakespeare. She also focuses on one character whose path crosses the others over a period of decades in order to bring us into the characters’ stories. Perhaps the biggest fugue is a comic book, and that may be the least compelling linking mechanism for me (holy coincidence, Batman!); however, it is also lovely to read about the characters, plot, and illustrations of the comic book, so I don’t hate how critical it was for the story.
Besides COVID, my family recently experienced a death and so I have been in a wistful, sentimental state, thinking a lot about the past and what could have been. This book was a beautiful companion for me during this time. (I feared, when I started, that it might be too much, but it wasn’t.) For example, Mandel notes: ‘She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.’ She articulated my feelings, and, in doing so, has given me language to articulate them. What a gift!
I think this type of contemplation is the mood of the book, interspersed with moments of terror, horror, and joy. There are chapters of the absolute inhumanity of people to one another – so terrifying and enraging, and you wonder why people would group together. On the other hand, there were stories of such beauty and kindness and love that I understood why people would seek each other out even at the risk of ruin. This is all the more poignant because of how people had to slam the doors on others during the early days of the pandemic, when there was no hope and no place for compassion; when humanity took a back seat to survival.
I do absolutely recommend this book; it is the kind of book that I wish I could take in slowly, to allow the characters to slowly bring their stories to me, but I was much too anxious to understand how Mandel would bring it all together to savor it in that way. I want to leave this review with my other favorite image that she articulated so beautifully. One of the characters is recalling a much earlier time (decades earlier) where he and his friend have ended a night clubbing and are at a diner. He noted that they felt so wise and present, but, in retrospect he saw that ‘….what seemed at the time like adulthood and seemed in retrospect like a dream.’ My 30th college reunion is coming up, and as I read through the memories that classmates are sharing, this is exactly my feeling!
(Really 4.5 stars)