Because survival is insufficient.
I’ve been wondering almost since starting Station Eleven (two days ago—yes, it really is that good) why it’s so clearly a breed apart from other apocalypse thrillers. I have an uncharacteristic but genuine affinity for disaster movies (this includes things with giant robots in them), and although some of them can be more than the sum of their parts, most of them, like most end-of-the-world books, are predictable. Entertainment, certainly; food for the soul, less so. But Station Eleven is something else entirely, and not just because the production of Shakespeare plays is central to the narrative. Finally, getting dressed this morning (a time at which many of my revelations inconveniently occur), I think I figured out why: where most apocalypse thrillers chart the end of the world as it happens, and many even throw in a plot twist at the end where the world is saved, Station Eleven accepts that the end of civilization has, definitively, happened. Emily St John Mandel is much less interested in the world-ending pandemic itself than she is in how people survive in the aftermath.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road sort of does this, but McCarthy’s vision is unfailingly dark. St John Mandel’s, by contrast, notes violence—one of our protagonists, Kirsten, has two knife tattoos on her wrist; in response to a question about them, she says, “You know what tattoos like this mean…I won’t talk about it, François, and you know better than to ask”—but it’s not the sole medium by which human interaction takes place. Instead, she flips back and forth between two times and several protagonists, giving us a sense both of the last day everything was normal and of the strategies that the few survivors have adopted, twenty years on. We have at least five point-of-view characters: perhaps most accessible is Kirsten Raymonde, an eight-year-old child actress in a Toronto production of King Lear on the night the pandemic lands in North America. Starring as Lear in that production is Arthur Leander, who dies onstage of a heart attack; Station Eleven, in part, traces his history back into his teenage years, and we see him moving to the city, becoming famous, falling in love, falling out of love, behaving appallingly, getting divorced, and generally becoming a very different person. Arthur’s best friend is Clark Thompson, who, in the years after the pandemic, manages to survive in a colony within Severn City Airport, in Michigan. We also see through the eyes of Jeevan Chaudhury, a paramedic who was in the audience at King Lear on the night of Arthur’s death, and of Arthur’s first wife, Miranda Elliott, who spends much of her time working on a graphic novel entitled Station Eleven. On the night Arthur dies, Miranda visits him at the theatre and gives him two copies of the first two volumes; he sends one copy to his estranged son Tyler, and gives the other to Kirsten. The characters and themes of Miranda’s Station Eleven—a graphic novel about the end of the world, and two very different ways of coping—resonate throughout St John Mandel’s Station Eleven beautifully and profoundly.
You might think, reading the above, that these themes can’t be tied in without looking clumsy, that the similarities would be too obvious, the moral lessons too glaring. You would be wrong. Partly this is because all the characters are differentiated so well, and partly this is because there are essentially two strands of the novel: before, and after. St John Mandel incorporates chapters from before, outlining the story of Arthur and Miranda’s marriage and its breakdown, Clark Thompson’s disillusionment with his friend, and the night at the theatre itself, in between chapters from after, which outline Kirsten’s life as an actress with the Travelling Symphony, a group of itinerant players and musicians who bring the joys and distractions of art to the small settlements that have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic. If the before and after sections were not all mashed in with each other, perhaps the graphic novel subplot would be too meta, too twee; as it is, it’s woven unassumingly but with technical brilliance throughout the book. It is frankly heartbreaking.
I’ve complained earlier about how most reviews of Station Eleven don’t give anything away, meaning that it’s impossible to read them and get any sense of what it’s actually like to read the book. Having read it, I understand why: there’s an interconnectedness to the plotting that reminds me a little bit of Cloud Atlas (though in Station Eleven the effect is far more organic, and, I think, preferable). It makes it very difficult to discuss anything without revealing spoilers; like pulling on a loose thread, everything else wants to come tumbling out. What I can say about the second, “after” plot, is that it involves a mad prophet. St John Mandel’s prose is well-adapted to descriptions of fear and the processes of survival; she writes clear, uncluttered sentences with just the right detail or touch of humanity. In the Severn City Airport:
A day later, the first stranger walked in… [He] seemed less dangerous than stunned. He was dirty, of indeterminate age, dressed in layers of clothes, and hadn’t shaved in a long time. He appeared on the road with a gun in his hand, but he stopped and let the gun fall to the pavement when Tyrone shouted at him to drop it. He raised his hands over his head and stared at the people gathering around him. He seemed to struggle for speech. His lips moved silently, and he had to clear his throat several times before he could speak. Clark realized that he hadn’t spoken in some time.
‘I was in the hotel,’ he said finally. ‘I followed your tracks through the snow.’
‘Okay,’ someone said, ‘but why are you crying?’
‘I’d thought I was the only one,’ he said.
That’s a scene we’ve been presented with a dozen times before, in the disaster movies of which I am so fond, but St John Mandel makes it work. The emotion is there, built up in the unhurried description of the stranger’s attempts to speak. She gives him a long, leisurely paragraph, noting his appearance, the movements of his lips. And then the punchline we know: “I’d thought I was the only one.” We are all afraid of being the only one.
The fear of loneliness is, I would suggest, the fear upon which Station Eleven plays the most. Arthur’s death is sad, but elevated to tragedy by the fact that, having divorced three wives and with no close family, the first person to be notified when he dies is his lawyer. Kirsten is afraid only of losing her friends in the Travelling Symphony: “Hell is the absence of the people you long for” is another much-quoted line. And the Travelling Symphony’s own motto—“Because survival is insufficient”—nods to this, too. Their dramatic repertoire is entirely Shakespeare. They are performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream when we first meet them, a play which might seem ill-suited to the end of the world until you realize that the scene St John Mandel chooses to have them play is the meeting between Titania and Oberon, where the queen of the fairies describes how their discord has changed the weather, fomented diseases. Here, again, she invests fact and detail with great power by simply allowing them to speak for themselves:
Shakespeare was the third born to his parents, but the first to survive infancy. Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theatres again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight lit once more by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king.
Survival is insufficient. The reason Station Eleven is glorious is because it argues—slyly, passionately—for the strength of humanity: that, twenty years after 99% of the world’s population is wiped from the face of the planet, there could be such a thing as Shakespeare, as new life (the baby born to a cellist and a guitarist in the Symphony; Jeevan’s survival, marriage and existence in a small community called McKinley.) It’s simultaneously the most realistic and the most hopeful depiction of the apocalypse I’ve ever read. Another one that ought, by all rights, to be on the Baileys’ Prize shortlist.