The Books of 2016, #6: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

station_elevenI read this book in one night.

Something about this one just grabbed me. It hit all of the right notes with me on a cold, wintry weeknight in Chicago, and I stayed up in bed ’til like 2am to finish it even though my alarm goes off at 5. Been a LONG time since a book got those kind of hooks into me.

I stumbled across this book entirely by accident, too. Somebody raved about it on their Facebook feed, and their lavish recommendation was sprinkled with just enough of the words and phrases that will always grab my attention when talking about new fiction. You know, shit like: “superflu”, “civilization collapses”, “everybody dies”.

That said, this is NOT strictly an apocalypse novel. It’s got some things in common with classics of that genre like, say, Stephen King’s “The Stand”, but it has MORE in common, if you ask me, with the giants of the “family story” archetype, like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”.

Yes, the book kicks off with a flu. A bad one. The kind authors love, because it’s 99% contagious, 99% fatal and basically scrubs the Earth raw to provide a clean slate upon which to tell the story they actually want to tell. Which is NOT the story of everyone dying.

Rather, Station Eleven is effectively about one family, that of Hollywood Superstar Actor Currently on the Downside of His Career, Arthur Leander (who I immediately, for reasons I’m not entirely certain of, pictured as current-day Harrison Ford) . We’re using “family” loosely here, since Arthur is the typical Hollywood guy in that he’s got a passel of ex-wives he doesn’t have particularly great relationships with, a son he adores but who has been whisked away to Israel by one of those ex-wives so he hardly sees him, etc…

As the novel opens, Arthur is leading a stage performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Toronto, doing the typical end-career thing of trying to add some gravitas back into his resume by performing one of the classic roles of all time. At the same time as the performance is going on, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow lands in Toronto with some passengers already dead and most of the rest of them, and the crew, getting increasingly ill. These folks are immediately whisked to local area hospitals, where they come into contact with exponentially more people. Who then go home and come into contact with…

…you can probably guess where things go with the superflu from there.

The contrast between life pre-flu and post-flu is one of the things I most enjoy about this book; most The End Of the World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) novels spend a few intro chapters about life before The End, and then the rest of the book is just what happens after The End. Station Eleven deftly flits back and forth chapter by chapter between:

  • The End, by which I mean the timeframe in which the flu develops, expands, and wipes out humanity. The book makes it clear that the reader is to picture this flu breaking out in basically our current time, 2016.
  • The Past, which is examined via flashbacks to various points in the life of Arthur that show how he develops as a person and forms these relationships with the folks we’re going to be following through the superflu and into the terrible times beyond.
  • The Future, when the book flashes about twenty or so years past the flu’s rages, to show us how things have shaken out for the people introduced into the other two time periods.

The contrast between Life Before and Life After is stark, as it must be. And Mandel writes about both sides with authority. One is immediately struck by the ease of our world when compared to what its collapsed version would inevitably be like; the chapters covering Arthur’s rise as a Hollywood superstar is full of people traveling across the globe at the drop of a hat, an absolute lack of material want, and the vicious focus of too many people on Shit That Does Not Fucking Matter. In the Present Day chapters, she shows us how easily this would all fall apart. In the After Chapters, she provides a great sense of a world circumscribed, where the average person never travels more than a few miles from their homes in their entire life, where death comes often, randomly, for the young and old alike, in ways that just do NOT happen in our sanitized, softened, kinda ridiculous existence of today.

Indeed, the main characters of these chapters are notable for the fact that they belong to a theater troupe that travels around the Great Lakes performing Shakespeare (if you can’t see the tie here to what Arthur was doing himself when the flu hit, this book is not for you). They travel farther and wider than almost anyone alive at that point, and even they haven’t gone a distance in their entire lives that a current American would consider more than a middling weekend road trip, at best.

I don’t want to get too much into the detail of things here, because what I enjoyed most about this book was the slow and constant reveal of connections between all three eras and all of the characters that, at the start, seem to have absolutely no relation to each other, as well as what happens to everyone.

While the actual process of the flu expanding across the globe and society collapsing is covered well, Mandel doesn’t REVEL in it like too many authors do. We find out how it’s progressing via its localized impact on the key characters of the novel, or in background info THEY absorb via the Internet or news (well… while those two avenues of information are still functioning. SPOILER ALERT: CNN and Facebook don’t last too long). She’s VERY good at dropping the perfect one sentence of detail that almost catches your breath with the depth of horror it manages to convey about what’s happening to the world.

The biggest difference between Station Eleven and most novels of the dystopian genre is that the violence that can safely be assumed to be unavoidable in such scenarios is present, but not lavishly glorified and slavered over, descriptively. Most of the violence is assumed and/or hinted at; the few action set-pieces are absolutely necessary instead of gratuitous. The single most-affecting act of violence that obviously shaped one of the key character’s entire life is never even described; you don’t need the gory details of what happened, you just need to know THAT it happened. I like Mandel’s unwillingness to glorify and linger over the violence, to indulge the genre’s usual trope of good guy vs. bad guy and capable ultra-violent hero vs. total bad dude… I find all of that just so goddamned tired at this point. MOST people are bad or good situationally; I don’t know how I’m going to respond if society collapses and all of a sudden, say, a medication my wife needs to live is only available if I use force to take it from someone who has done me absolutely no wrong. I like to think I’m a good, moral person who wouldn’t cause pain unduly, but how you define “unduly” is gonna shift when the chips are down.

In the end, Mandel weaves not just one, but a number of gripping plots that, in lesser hands, either would’ve each been its own book or, more likely, have been turned into one big unreadable, unfollowable mess. I could not put this damned book down, because there were so many things I needed to know the resolution to, and her writing just pulls you through page after page, compulsively.

For all of the negativity that this kind of setting and genre must involve, there is a surprising amount of lightness and hope in this novel, too. While acknowledging that a lot or even most people are going to be revealed as willing to do terrible things in the extremis of our entire comfy modern civilization collapsing, I think she’s correct in also surmising that a lot of people will be able to realize that working together is going to be the only way for _anyone_ to survive; that raw, brittlely-defended individuality may buy you a brief period of kinghood over the wasteland, but, if you want a world worth living in instead of merely surviving, you’ll need to find ways to work with, care about and, eventually, love other people.

That’s the sort of message I need to read more often, and I can’t recommend this book enough because of it. It’s just a great read.

Author: Shawn Ritchie

Chicago, Whiskeys, Guitars, Blackhawks and Nerdery.

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