Thursday, April 20, 2023

Station Eleven

 Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel

What happens when civilization crumbles in less than year? The characters of Station Eleven find out. The story opens with the last performance of Arthur Leander, starring in the title role of King Lear. Leander has a heart attack onstage and Jeevan, an EMT in the audience, races on stage to try and save him. In the wings is Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor, whose life will change dramatically in the next few days, but who will find herself performing Shakespeare again the the most bizarre circumstances.

Over the next few days a pandemic which has its roots in Russia and has been spreading round the globe finally reaches Toronto. The death of a major screen and stage star is overshadowed by the sheer numbers lost to the deadly Georgian flu. Arthur's best friend from his younger years, two of his ex-wives, his son, Kristen, and Jeevan all find themselves trying to survive in the world post-pandemic. Some will and some won't. Kristen finds herself traveling with The Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who play classical music and perform Shakespeare's plays for the sporadic groups of survivors. 

This is a haunting story of a world broken by pandemic. It cuts close after having lived through Covid. It's frightening to think that as deadly as Covid-19 was, that there could have been something worse. Something that spread so quickly and had such a short incubation period that millions (billions?) could be gone in such a short time. No time to stock up on face masks (would masks have been useful?). I do wish that the story had been told in chronological order--sometimes jumping around in time works better than others. Here, I found the jumping back and forth between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic to be a little jarring. I think if we had followed the characters from the night of Arthur's death (with a few flashbacks here and there) then that would have worked better for me. I was able to see where one of the characters would wind up--even though I think Mandel was trying to build up suspense around that particular plot point. But I wasn't too disappointed because it made a great deal of sense. I did appreciate the way she wove the various storylines together in a way that made it appear natural and not full of coincidence.

A few things that confused me and/or I wished were better explained [some of which became clearer, but these are notes that I made while reading]: 

It would have been nice to have more details on the effects of the pandemic. After going through Covid and knowing how essential workers had to keep working to keep everything going, I find it incredible that everything just shut down. Boom. Nobody left who knew how to run electrical plants or get other sources of power? I realize that this fictional Georgian flu seemed to spread much more quickly (with a shorter incubation time) than Covid, but I'm still amazed at how quickly civilization was lost. 

A better sense of how old the people in the Shakespeare troupe are. Characters are like "there used to be air conditioning? I think it just came out of a vent?" It's like they've completely forgotten what came before or only heard vague rumors about what it was like. I could understand better if this were set closer to 100 years after the epidemic, but it's only been 15-20 years.

Why do so many places and people have new names after the flu pandemic? And why do people in The Symphony use their instruments for their names. Did we not want to associate now with the people and places we were and went to before everything fell apart? I would think that in unsettling times most people would want to hold on to as much that was familiar as possible. [One of the characters late in the book does wonder if they should be teaching their children about what life was like before the pandemic. Will it be any use to tell them about things they haven't experienced and...for all they know...may never have the chance to experience? Will it just confuse them--or even, in some way make them miserable?]

Overall, a very interesting and poignant look at a dystopian world that could, most disturbingly, be possible.  and 1/2

First line: The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.

Hell is the absence of the people you long for. (p. 238)

First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen that's not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered. (p. 308)

Last line: He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I remember reading this book ages ago. And really liking it. I think I might have to get it again.