Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a post-apocalyptic vision of the future with a twist. It’s a narrative written from the multiple perspectives of characters who exist before and after an epidemic ends modern civilization and who are all connected in some way. As the story weaves its way back and forth through the decades, it follows an actor burdened by the pressure of fame and his own poor life choices who dies on the eve of the plague; a member of a wandering band of armed actors who has lived most of her life roving in the wilderness; the actor’s second of three ex-wives who is obsessed with drawing and works on the same graphic novel for years; and the actor’s English friend who serves as the everyman thrust into a calamitous world drowning in sickness and fear. Throughout the novel, paths cross, stories are shared, and the old notions of love, fame, and desire are thrown into chaos and replaced by a single notion of survival. Yet, at the heart of the apocalypse lies togetherness and bonds that no betrayals, pains, or end-of-the-world scenarios can destroy.
Station Eleven paints a picture of a world that would be recognizable to readers, even if it is distorted by the crash of modern civilization. The events of the novel could, in all likelihood, happen today, in our society, in our world. Mandel cleverly crafts a world that the reader can identify with. Her settings are real places, her characters have real struggles, and her situations are based on real conflicts with emotion and survival. Placing the novel about twenty years into the future, she strikes the world with an unknown but realistic infection that reflects our modern society’s fear of outbreak. She topples our culture and plays with memory; in her America, our everyday comforts and joys are practically non-existent and are only remembered as distant pleasures of a better time. Our electronic devices, for example, are only artifacts that end up on the shelves of a makeshift museum in an airport, curiously examined by children with no memory of these things. Mandel’s world runs two ways: For those alive at the time of the epidemic, this is not a world anyone is prepared to face when the calamity strikes, and they have fond memories of the previous world and do what they can to keep parts of it alive. For those born in the post-apocalyptic America, this is only world they know, and all they can do is imagine what the old world was like. This is not an America anyone would choose to live in, and the pain of watching her characters struggle to survive is real because they have no choice.
Not only does Mandel reflect our society and culture well, she also weaves in her own brand of pop culture. The novel’s title refers to a series of graphic novels written by one of her protagonists, the actor’s ex-wife Miranda. These stories are read by other characters, such as the actor, Arthur, and the wandering girl, Kirsten. Throughout the course of the book, the Station Eleven stories pop up to connect characters across stretches of time. These connections, perhaps, serve as Mandel’s greatest strength in her writing: Mandel is capable of using objects, themes, and characters to plot out a chronology over the decades that gets revealed, piece by piece, as the story moves ever closer to its culmination. What makes Mandel’s story unique is that her connections are subtle. She doesn’t hit readers over the head with references to objects, themes, and characters that exist in both the old world and the new world. She lets these connections wander, alongside her Traveling Symphony, allowing the reader to pick them up at his or her own leisure, letting them have moments of epiphany as puzzle pieces slide together. Even the use of a Traveling Symphony, wandering actors who perform Shakespeare to whomever will watch, is interesting because Mandel utilizes them to connect the cultures of the old and new worlds. The line “Because survival is insufficient” is the Symphony’s motto, and Mandel uses this line to present a group of people who want to do more than just survive. They have these old plays by Shakespeare, and they’re doing what they can to keep this part of their past culture alive, for both themselves and for others. Because survival is insufficient. Because simply languishing in the wasteland America has become is to admit defeat, and defeat is not what the human spirit needs to fix itself.
Unfortunately, though Mandel masterfully connects past to present and character to character, there are moments where elements become jumbled. A variety of characters—typically those with the Traveling Symphony Kirsten is associated with—are not given names, referred to instead by whatever instrument they play, such as “the first flute” and “the third violin.” This causes many of these characters to not be as fleshed out as well as they could be and makes them roam in obscurity for the majority of the novel. Also, while the connections between the time periods are interesting and help bring the novel together, jumping between four or five different stories has the drawback of not allowing enough pages for each story to be fully experienced. Thus, at times the pacing can feel rather rushed and plotlines can be forgotten if they are not returned to quickly. Each story is told poetically, but there’s the sense that some characters don’t accomplish as much as others and that certain characters aren’t as important to like or to follow. However, the important characters are allowed room to grow, even if that growth sometimes feels forced.
Overall, Mandel has created an America that is thrown into a cesspool of destruction and misery, a world that could be our own. In our pop culture, as obsessed as we are with doomsday scenarios at the hands of aliens and zombies, Mandel offers a novel that could be real, where the events could happen at any moment. There’s some action, a lot of drama, and a ton of struggle. Though it sometimes feels like the puzzle takes a while to be put together, all the pieces are still there and get placed, one at a time. Reading Station Eleven requires thought and concentration to it, and those who give it the proper amount are rewarded with an inquisitive, if not haunting, tale that many readers can undeniably relate to on certain levels and hope they will never have to on others.
Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award. A previous novel, The Singer’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.
About the author of this post: Nathan Kiehn is a junior at North Central College and has wanted to be a novelist since the fourth grade. Though he is currently the New York Times Bestselling Author of nothing, he continues to plug away at fantasy and superhero novels, hoping someone important will finally see one of his $2.99 ebooks on Amazon and pay him enough money to get through college. When he isn’t writing or working, he can be found saving the world in video games and with LEGOs.