AS THE WORLD seems to crumble into disarray, our fictions suggest that we long for an undoing — whether to escape such horrors as Gaza, the Ebola pandemic, and Ferguson, Missouri, or to reassure ourselves that, however bad it gets, some semblance of life will continue. But never has a book convinced me more of society’s looming demise than Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an apocalyptic novel about a world just like our own that, much as our own might, dissolves after a new strain of influenza eradicates 99 percent of the human population. A soul-quaking premise, and a story that, I must warn, should not be read in a grubby airport surrounded by potential carriers of … whatever disease, take your pick. (I promptly put the book aside until I could read it from the seemingly safe space of home.)
Mandel displays the impressive skill of evoking both terror and empathy, which I credit to her background as a mystery author. I searched my neighborhood bookstore and the local branch of the public library for Mandel’s previous books — this is her fourth novel — and, dishearteningly, found none. She has exuded talent for years, and, with time, her themes have shifted: from the facade of a crime thriller to the subtlety of the noir, and now to dystopian literature. But the shifts in style have only refined her finesse in balancing tension, in crafting intrigue. Station Eleven exhibits the best of Mandel’s talents, earning her, I hope, her rightful place in bookstores and libraries.
Confronting the end of society and recording it in a digestible manner would daunt any chronicler of truths, so Mandel skillfully frames the story around one character, an actor named Arthur Leander, and the people whose lives intersect with his: two ex-wives, his son, his oldest friend, a girl who performed with him when she was a child, and the man who tries to save his life. The novel, already alluding to the ensuing doom of which the characters are not aware, anchors itself around Arthur’s death on stage during a performance of King Lear. Though entirely unrelated to the pandemic itself, this somber, almost surreal, final performance — Arthur fumbling well-rehearsed lines, “The wren goes to’t” — casts the reader into the world of before and after, and we travel through the novel knowing that Arthur’s death was the dividing line. Jeevan, a soon-to-be paramedic who leaps onto the stage to perform CPR, considers the haze of bluish lights, the false snow, the intimacy of this moment, and, with the knowledge that Arthur has already died, thinks, “It was like being in the eye of the storm.” Such moments of stasis, of awareness, prick the science-fictional film that lies over Mandel’s novel and moor it to our own world, inciting an intimate rapport between the reader and the characters.
After what may be considered the prologue, when Arthur dies, the author jumps to and fro between the aftermath of the pandemic and the world before. In the future:
No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. […] No more countries, all borders unmanned. […] No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.
This vision is certainly a Western one that doesn’t take into account the millions dead around the world who never had an avatar. But, of course, the apocalypse looks different to everyone, and this is how it would affect Mandel’s comparatively affluent North American characters.
Twenty years after Arthur’s death, Kirsten Raymonde, who was eight when she performed in Lear and befriended the actor, now roams the Great Lakes region as part of the Traveling Symphony, a band of musicians and actors who perform for the continent’s remaining communities. Enough time has passed; the terror has settled. There’s nothing left to loot, few reasons to kill (though everyone still carries a weapon and a speck of suspicion). People have settled into townships around defunct gas stations and hotels. Those who have ceased wandering now harvest in their gardens and raise children and swoon for Shakespeare — so like and unlike our own world. After many years of performing, the Symphony has culled their repertoire down to only the Bard. As one actor reasons, “People want what was best about the world,” a sentiment that could make even the hardest hearts yearn to read a sonnet, to smell a book, to perform any gesture to illustrate gratitude for what we have. Readers even remotely familiar with Elizabethan England will appreciate this link, one of many that makes Mandel’s novel such a sophisticatedly-woven tapestry. She writes, “Plague closed the theaters again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity [has] come and gone.” With a light hand, Mandel joins history and future, thrusting readers into the characters’ mindset: all lives are transitory and the world as it exists right now is only a blip.
Mankind has always harbored examples of madness, some extremism, even in social and cultural climates quite moderate compared with what-could-be. Post-collapse, minds that readily lurch to the ends of the spectrum have no trouble finding inspiration. Self-appointed prophets prowl, occasionally inflicting minor damages, but few have generated as much foreboding or abuse as the one the Symphony encounters. The Prophet proclaims that he and his followers are the light, that the outbreak occurred for a reason — a flood, a cleansing — and his zeal is menacing enough to make any reader hesitate to seek meaning within tragedy. Townspeople warn the Traveling Symphony to leave his domain, and, in doing so, the band acquires a stowaway, a teenage girl promised to the Prophet as a bride. This incident triggers the novel’s most precise story arc, as the violent Prophet and his company of trained trackers and throat-slitters stalk the performers across the countryside.
Meanwhile, in pre-pandemic life, Arthur is becoming a star, meeting, loving, and sometimes breaking ties with those whose lives continue after the outbreak. These characters, despite time, location, access to electricity or literature or doors that lock, all vibrate at one frequency, their lives punctuated by moments of clarity set in high relief. Their personal epiphanies are not just luxuries of civilization but the genuine sentiment that binds our eras. After a business meeting, Arthur’s best friend Clark realizes he’s only been sleepwalking through life and is overcome by penitence. Miranda — one of Arthur’s wives — tells herself “that only the dishonorable leave when things get difficult.” This certainty then seeps into her own work: the titular Station Eleven is Miranda’s series of comics about a space station where Earth’s inhabitants fled after an alien invasion (one more grim foretelling of man’s future). There, Dr. Eleven presides, combatting dissenters who would rather return to their home planet and take their chances under alien law: “All they want is to see sunlight again.” But Dr. Eleven, like all of Mandel’s indefatigable characters, refuses to give up, however arduous his undertaking.
Before his death, Arthur gave the first two installments of the comics to eight-year-old Kirsten, and she carries their tattered remains like talismans. Who can blame her when they contain such apt depictions of her transformed life:
Dr. Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight. Small boats move between islands, wind turbines spinning on the horizon. […] A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.
Yet I cannot suggest that the entire novel has such an air of melancholy or longing for the past. Through the eerily realistic possibility of Mandel’s chain-of-events, we can easily imagine society’s dissolution. An almost masochistic horror draws us in, but what propels the narrative and what made me weep is not the world that perished — it’s the one that survived. “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty,” Mandel writes. We see Jeevan baking bread with his new family. We hear the Symphony tune its instruments and watch Kirsten, a crown of flowers in her hair, play Shakespeare’s Titania. There are no stage lights, but no one minds.
And in the Midwest, the largest community of survivors has settled in an airport, residing in glass-cased terminals. Many of them, including Clark, have been there since the outbreak. For nearly two decades, Clark — having been thrust from his purgatorial business life — has been amassing a Museum of Civilization. Laptops, iPhones, a motorcycle, books and newspapers, passports: the things that we as readers (living before whatever apocalypse is to come) recognize as both necessary and completely worthless.
So is there some appeal to the doomsday? Yes and no. Maybe it would be best to put all the iPhones in a museum; to walk until we decide to stop and, there, to plant a garden. But, still, there is such glory in humanity, in what we, through every plague and every age, continue to create — like this book — and in what we are capable of sustaining.