Have you ever wondered what the end of civilization will look like? I’m not talking about the end of the world, the complete destruction of the planet by human or alien forces. I’m talking about the end of now, the information age, the age of technology and convenience. That is one of the questions at the heart of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which traces the near eradication of the human race at the hands of a deadly and highly contagious strain of flu and the post-virus world the survivors inherit and shape. Mandel’s story follows four main characters, all tied to Arthur Leander, a movie star who dies of a heart attack on stage as King Lear just hours before the flu devastates Toronto: Jeevan, a former entertainment journalist and paparazzo turned EMT-in-training who attempts to resuscitate Arthur on stage; Kirsten, 8 years old, who is playing the phantom child version of Cordelia at the time of Arthur’s death and later travels as a Shakespearean actress with the Traveling Symphony post-pandemic; Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, artist, and shipping magnate who comes from the same rural island off of Vancouver as Arthur; and Clark, Arthur’s best friend, a Brit who serves as a consultant for companies looking to improve the quality of their executives. Mandel traces the experiences of these four people (and many others) before, during, and after the pandemic, the post-pandemic world shadowed by the sinister and cultish prophet.
Mandel’s story begins with Arthur’s death, Jeevan leaping from the audience to help and Kirsten looking on, in a theatre in modern-day Toronto. This opening is masterfully written and vividly realized. There is a particular heaviness to the silence of snow falling, and rarely have I felt it so acutely and accurately in the written word as I did in Mandel’s descriptions of Jeevan wandering Toronto’s snowy streets. As much as we all like to inhabit the worlds that we read about, this is the first time in quite a while where I have felt truly in the story. Mandel’s skill as a storyteller, both in terms of the larger story and the small details, is revealed right off the bat, and within the first 20 pages, I was completely hooked.
Mandel tells her story, jumping back and forth in time and place to reveal particular connections intentionally and at exactly the precise moment for maximum impact. She plays with form in a way that allows her to focus on a particular character’s experiences and perspective in a compelling and logical way, grouping parts of the story around themed sections (“The Theatre”, “The Airplanes”) and relaying parts of Kirsten’s story in an interview printed in a newspaper founded post-pandemic. Running through all are descriptions of a comic book that vaguely mirrors the plights of the survivors in the new world, a comic book that holds much more significance than one might imagine.
If that sounds irritatingly mysterious, I apologize. One of the most delicious things about reading this book was discovering each new layer, each new wrinkle, and each new revelation about these stories. Mandel’s writing is deceptive in its simplicity, proving itself to be gorgeously complex within a precision and economy of language. So I find it hard to delve too much into plot elements as I don’t want to take that pleasure of discovery from you.
Ultimately, this novel tackles some pretty heady questions. It is about human nature and our determination for survival. What will happen when civilization ends? Will those who remain rebuild or not? What will we bring from the old world into the new and what is worth preserving as history? Will we try to recreate our destroyed technologies? Will Shakespeare and Star Trek transcend civilization, as many of the characters hope and believe? And is, as the Traveling Symphony declares, mere survival insufficient?
This novel is a breathtaking feat of spectacular, glorious writing. I finished it several days ago, but I have taken my time writing this review because I haven’t quite figured out how to describe it. It sticks with you, lingering around your consciousness in the best way. It made me feel the same sense of wonder I feel when I have the opportunity to really see the stars. My only complaint is that it was over too fast; I wanted more. I don’t know how you will feel about this book, but I want you to read it to find out. At its most basic, it is a case study in truly excellent, original, and evocative writing. At its most complex, it is a symphony to the human spirit, endeavor and exploration, and the hope for the future, whatever that future may bring.