Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” had been sitting in the queue of books I need to read all fall, pushed down the list by breaking news, comfort reading cravings and my reluctance to read yet another post-apocalyptic novel that seemed guarantee to disappoint and frustrate me. But at the request of a reader, I picked up the book this weekend, and found myself delighted.
Yes, “Station Eleven” is about a flu outbreak that quickly kills most of the human population. But for St. John Mandel, that framework is an opportunity to consider what artifacts from our old lives would continue to feel meaningful in a new world, rather than to conduct yet another predictable meditation on human baseness.
“Station Eleven” begins in Toronto, where an actor named Arthur Leander collapses and dies on stage during a performance of “King Lear.” Among the cast is a young girl named Kirsten Raymonde. Arthur gives Kirsten some comics about a little planet called Station Eleven, that his first wife Miranda, drew and wrote when she was young. After the flu wipes out most of the human population, a grown Kristen ends up performing both classical music and Shakespeare with an ensemble called the Traveling Symphony, which takes as its motto a line from “Star Trek”: “Because survival is insufficient.”
The characters who remember the world before the flu long for the things they do not have access to anymore. Dieter, a member of the Traveling Symphony, “found it difficult to live in the present. He’d played in a punk band in college and longed for the sound of an electric guitar.” August, another performer, was from a military family and misses the television shows that kept him company from posting to posting.
But some lingering objects have surprising persistence, even when they are unable to be used for their original purpose.
“There were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars,” St. John Mandel writes. “They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Teenagers snuck into them to have sex. Rust blossomed and streaked.”
And so it is with art. Kirsten performed in “King Lear” at a time when the mad king’s wanderings marked him as insane. “Now she walked in sandals whose soles had been cut from an automobile tire, three knives in her belt. She was carrying a paperback version of the play, the stage directions highlighted in yellow.” Dieter tells Kirsten that Shakespeare remains a big draw for the Traveling Symphony because “People want what was best about the world,” but Kristen’s experience suggests that his characters’ precarious circumstances feel familiar and freshly relevant to the audience.
For others, art provides proof that the new world is not permanent. “I’ve been taking art history classes on and off for years, between projects,” Elizabeth Colton, Arthur’s second wife, tells Arthur’s friend Clark Thompson when they are stranded in an airport together. “And of course art history is always pressed up close against non-art history, you see catastrophe after catastrophe, terrible things, all these moments when everyone must have thought the world was ending, but all those moments, they were all temporary. It always passes.”
The members of the Symphony even discern new story forms in their experiences. One man identifies two basic structures: “Everyone else died, I walked, I found the Symphony. Or, I was very young when it happened, I was born after it happened, I have no memories or few memories of any other way of living, and I have been walking all my life.”
And it is Miranda’s Station Eleven comics, which imagined one apocalypse, that turn out to be strikingly relevant to the survivors of a very different cataclysm.
In Miranda’s imagination, “A hostile civilization from a nearby galaxy has taken control of Earth and enslaved Earth’s population, but a few hundred rebels managed to steal a space station and escape. Dr. Eleven and his colleagues slipped Station Eleven through a wormhole and are hiding in the uncharted reaches of deep space…There has been a schism . There are people who, after fifteen years of perpetual twilight, long only to go home, to return to Earth and beg for amnesty , to take their chances under alien rule.”
The disaster of St. John Mandel’s making is less dramatic than Miranda’s fantasy. But in a word that now consists only of small communities, schisms are painful and unavoidable. And while Kirsten is inspired by Dr. Eleven’s wanderings around his small world, someone else turns out to have a copy of the comics, and to have come to a strikingly different conclusion about what they mean that he should do.