When I picked up Station Eleven (2014) I knew nothing about it other than that it was getting quite a bit of critical and awards attention. I simply started the first chapter and found myself reading it steadily to the end over the next few days. This surprised me because the first section outlines a premise that, had I known about it before I started reading it, probably would have turned me away. Yet Mandel’s treatment felt fresh and tangible, and the humanity, rather than the premise, took center stage.
The book begins with a performance of King Lear in Toronto. A famous, and now obviously aging, actor named Arthur Leander is playing the main part when he collapses and dies on stage. Mandel lets the artificial snow continue to fall as actors and crew start to absorb what’s happened. However, this death turns out to be the least of anyone’s worries; that same evening, an illness that first felt foreign and innocuous found its footing and started spreading across the world. Within weeks, more than 99% of the world’s population is dead.
One of the actors watching as Arthur Leander died was 8-year-old Kirsten Raymonde. When we zip forward into the post-flu future, she is in her late twenties. Somehow having survived the plague, she is part of a group of travelling players. Moving from one small pocket of humanity to another, they bring Shakespeare back to life. By doing this, they follow their motto, taken self-consciously from a Star Trek episode: “Because survival is insufficient.”
The books continues to go back and forth in time. Rather than focus on the flu epidemic when it drifts to the past, it focuses on Arthur Leander, who, though dead from the beginning of the novel, serves as a hub for most of the other characters, both those who die during the outbreak and those who survive and find themselves getting accustomed to a completely new world springing up within the ruins of the old.
It’s the play between the old world (our world) and the new that I found most worthwhile. After the outbreak, it doesn’t take long before electricity is unavailable, and with it goes much of our current way of life. But not our essential humanity.
While the book is filled with other conflicts, including a religious zealot turned religious tyrant, those conflicts didn’t do as much for me as the moments of magic that highlight human hope, fear, and fascination. For example, I loved a simple passage where the characters remark on the gorgeous revelation of the Milky Way after the electricity went out; this view is hidden from most in modern times, and Station Eleven captures the awe of this view, awe that must surely be part of our human DNA since it inspired our ancestors since the beginning.
The book has many images that seem to go beneath the surface and beyond simple effect. I’m thinking now in particular of a plane that landed at an airport that was to become a small hub for humanity. No one on the plane disembarked after it landed, probably because someone on the plan had the flu. It sat out on the runway for years, a tomb that inspired fear in the old — what kind of horrors must have gone on in there before all went quiet? — and young — what ghosts haunt the runway?
Such strokes of imagination feel real and right, not simply thrown in for effect but actually descriptive and evocative of the human condition, its agony and ecstasy. The plot itself — with that preacher and all of the others linked somehow to Arthur Leander — doesn’t do much but serve as a vehicle for these more interesting themes. Consequently, I was disappointed when the plot mechanics took over in order to bring everything together . . . a bit too nicely. But that didn’t affect my overall estimation of the book, which I definitely recommend.