Station Eleven: Review

Station Eleven: Review

Station Eleven: ReviewStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Random House on September 9, 2014
Genres: adult, dystopian
Pages: 333
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads


An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

This is a fascinating story, a combination of post-apocalyptic genre fiction and literary fiction. A novel that is not so much concerned with the how of survival as it is with the why. It is a survival story but it is not survivalist. There are almost no heart pounding action scenes or encounters with the depraved dregs of humanity. There are big questions at hand. What does it mean to be alive when almost everyone else is dead? How do we go on when the world we knew is gone? How do you make a life in the graveyard of civilization?

There is a certain horror element in how real the situation could be. A pandemic flu could come and wipe out humanity. There have been great plagues throughout history. In the age of air travel our world is more interconnected than ever. We will carry that virus farther and faster than it could ever imagine in its wildest virus dreams.

 “If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

The author skillfully weaves the story back and forth through time and across the perspectives of four people who all knew a single man, either very well or just briefly. Through Arthur, the actor who dies on stage shortly before the flu carries off 99% of humanity, we trace the ways in which the actions of a single life have far reaching consequences. What is the price of love? Of selfishness? Of kindness? Of the myriad contradictions that make up a human being? For such a quietly contained novel the scope of its themes is enormous.

This isn’t a book that has a plot with forward momentum (this isn’t a bad thing, I swear). Rather, it is a reflection on living, on the small moments that make up a life. The story moves back and forth from the world shortly before the pandemic, to twenty years after, to during the breakdown, and back again to before and after. It shows us the same characters in the different stages of existence and how their lives are somehow both different and the same. But this is still a post-apocalyptic novel. There are bad things out there in the great unclaimed wild and heartbreak and loss are certainties.

The author has a gift for starkly laying out how incredible it is to live with the technology and means that we have and to make you immediately feel the profundity of that loss:

“She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.”

I could sit here and talk to you about the perfection of the prose, how tenderly the characters are drawn, how seamlessly the narrative moves about through time and place…And those things are all so excellently done, but that’s not what this story is really about.

It seems to me that this novel is both prayer and love letter to humanity. It is a quiet, elegantly composed story about the miracles of every day existence (both pre and post apocalypse) and the connectedness of human life. This is a novel that pauses amidst the chaos of pandemic, amidst the panic of survival in ruins of civilization to think on how strange it is to be anything at all in the first place. It is infused with a certain sense of magic. The simple, unbelievably complex magic of just being alive. Having this moment and this moment and the next one.   

Is it possible to miss a world you still inhabit? This book did just that. It is concerned with small moments By Chapter 6 I was haunted. It is a litany of loss:

“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.”

This is not a story you should read if you’re looking for typical post-apocalyptic fare full of action, thrills, and danger. I would not say that this is a “slow” book for that has a negative connotation. If this book is slow it is only because it is necessary for taking the time to examine each scene, each situation, each wish, each hope and loss.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

When I finished this book I sat in reflection for awhile. I felt an overwhelming sense of grief and euphoria. I felt prayerful and meditative. I get to live in this world which is not gone. And even admist all the loss, and grief, and sorrow, it is the most hopeful post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read.

An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

kim teal

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