The first couple chapters of Station Eleven end on a note of completely unsubtle foreshadowing. Chapter 2, for instance:
Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.
Next Jeevan receives an urgent phone call from his doctor friend about the Georgian Flu, an extremely deadly epidemic that's just beginning to spiral out of control. Jeevan's mind begins to race as he processes the news, and he can barely restrain his panic as he prepares for the worst at the grocery store.
At this point, I felt an anticipatory weariness as a reader. Now here comes the play-by-play apocalyptic nightmare, I thought. Denial then paranoia then "OMG do I have it?!", hysteria, "Oh God my daughter/husband/mother is sick", the overflowing hospitals, and the agony of watching all your loved ones dying suddenly and horrifically around you. I was preparing for a slog through hopelessness, formulaic hopelessness, and I wasn't looking forward to it.
Emily St. John Mandel instead took a very different turn. Hooray! Spoilers ahead.
At around page 30, it's part 2 and we're taken twenty years in the future. The Georgian Flu has come and gone. The world seems to be in rough shape, but here we see the Traveling Symphony, a mash-up collection actors and musicians who are stumbling over lines, grumbling about the weather, passionate about their art.
In other words, we're being told that hey, things post-apocalypse are going to be okay. At page 30! Not only are people still alive, but there's art, entertainment, and the hope to inspire.
It felt like an act of defiance, an opening like this. Mandel is declaring upfront that no, her apocalypse novel isn't going to be a "does he make it?!" thriller, it's not going to be torture porn, and no, it's not going to end in a climactic "but see, even in the worst of it all, humanity prevails!" Mandel gets all that over with in the first 30 pages of the book. She has another story to tell.
Station Eleven is composed of roughly two parallel arcs. The pre-apocalypse arc is written like standard modern literature, and it's a good old-fashioned character study. There's Arthur, the movie star, rich and famous with three divorces, trying to find happiness. There's Clark, his best friend, an occupational psychologist who pre-apocalypse had just come to the realization that he's going through life on auto-pilot. There's Miranda, the comic book artist and Arthur's first wife, a timid and passive woman who becomes a new woman after their divorce, with her literally internet-meme-sourced affirmation of "I regret nothing."
I love character-driven literature, and I love beautiful language, and that's exactly what Mandel's serving in the pre-apocalypse. There's a scene before Miranda's marriage to Arthur, where she is still with her first boyfriend, Pablo. They're not working out:
The problem is that she's colossally bored with the conversation, and also bored with Pablo, and with the kitchen on Jarvis Street where she knows he's standing, because he only makes angry phone calls from home — one of the things they have in common is a mutual distaste for sidewalk weepers and cell-phone screamers, for people who conduct their messier personal affairs in public — and the kitchen gets the best reception of anywhere in the apartment.
"Pablo, it's just a job. We need the money."
"It's always money with you, isn't it?"
"This is what's paying our rent. You know that, right?"
"Are you saying I'm not pulling my weigh, Miranda? Is that what you're saying?"
It isn't possible to continue to listen to this, so she sets the receiver gently on the cradle and finds herself wondering why she didn't notice earlier — say, eight years earlier, when they first started dating–that Pablo is mean.
She decides it isn't necessary to call Pablo, under the circumstances. There is a small task for Leon, who's about to board a plane in Lisbon; she finds a file he needs and emails it to him and then returns to Station Eleven. Panels set in the Undersea, people working quietly in cavernous rooms. They live out their lives under flickering lights, aware at all times of the fathoms of ocean above them, resentful of Dr. Eleven and his colleagues who keep Station Eleven moving forever through deep space. (Pablo texts her: ??did u get my email???) They are always waiting, the people of the Undersea. They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.
I love the way the prose wanders as means of illustrating Miranda's mind wandering. Being bored with the kitchen, remembering maybe a better time finding agreement in sidewalk weepers, then back to boredom. Same with the bit on Station Eleven, we're just as interrupted by Pablo's text as Miranda is, and we dismiss it just as quickly as Miranda does.
The Arthur/Clark/Miranda story is something that could have been told in a totally apocalypse-free setting, and for the most part, it is. Arthur dies on stage before the Georgian Flu takes off, Miranda dies almost immediately after learning about the flu (in a stunningly rendered scene: slow, poetic, and dignified.), Clark lives through the flu but unexcitingly: he miraculously lands in a quarantined, flu-free airport when the flu hits its stride, and he remains in the airport for the rest of his life.
The other half of the book is in the post-apocalypse, and it's decidedly In The Post-Apocalypse. It's less literature, more action-adventure; less about characters, much more about plot. There's an evil prophet in town, two Symphony members have gone missing, and the Traveling Symphony is looking for them. Kirsten the knife-throwing actress is the star of this arc. Kirsten is on the search for three things: one, any more information about her beloved Station Eleven comic books (Miranda's work). Two, any gossip articles featuring Arthur, whom she worked with and adored as a little girl right before the apocalypse. Three, the return of electricity.
I liked the Arthur/Clark/Miranda arc more than the Traveling Symphony arc, but I'm surprised to say that it's almost a toss-up.
Yes, the Arthur/Clark/Miranda arc is the type of literary writing I know and love. The Post-Apocalypse stuff though… Gah, I'm still grappling with that. When I try to analyze these parts abstractly, it seems like there are fundamental problems. There's a crazy religious fanatic who calls himself the prophet, makes life sucky for a while, and then… he gets shot and dies. Miranda sees electricity in the end. Almost all the Symphony members who were lost were found, safe, and happy. The plot sounds arbitrarily decided, the moral seems overly optimistic.
But… I don't know, I change my mind when I actually pick up the book and read these sections again. There's a point in the novel where Kirsten's ex-boyfriend Sayid goes missing and she's devastated. August the secret poet leaves a poem in her pocket.
Late in the day, she found a folded piece of paper in her pocket. She recognized August's handwriting.
A fragment for my friend–
If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you
Silent, my starship suspended in night
That should be overly sentimental, right? Ugh, instead, it's one of my favorite moments in the novel, and one of my favorite moments of any novel I've read in recent memory. Station Eleven is truly a beautifully crafted novel, in a way that's hard to define.
With the many characters, the parallel storylines, and the shifting perspectives, does it all come together in the end? Kind of. I think so. Station Eleven the novel seems to be fundamentally an exploration of art and artistry. There's a celebration of all forms of art, from Shakespeare to graphic novels, to Star Trek, to internet memes, to tabloids, to iPhones and airplanes. There's a celebration of all paths of artistry: Arthur who flees the small town for big city movie stardom, Miranda who writes quietly and creates but 10 copies of her work. Both die happy, both have lasting impact after their death.
So is the point of Station Eleven, "Everything is great"? Kind of. Maybe. Not really. I'm not sure. What I do know is Station Eleven is daring and lovely, thrilling and haunting, a fast read that lingers well after you've put it down.