Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (audio)

station eleven

Wow. The entirety of this book is every bit as good as it seemed when I wrote about it some time ago. I am reeling, very sorry that it is finished, and will want to track down more of Emily St. John Mandel’s work as soon as I can. Thanks again, Liz, for the great recommendation as always.

Station Eleven has two settings, dually in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future world, and with flashbacks to the world of here and now. The story begins with the beginning of the collapse, when during a stage production of King Lear the lead actor dies of a heart attack onstage. The audience member who tried to save him leaves the theatre, stunned, as a highly virulent and fast-acting flu virus sweeps through his home city of Toronto; warned by a friend who is an ER doctor, he stocks up on supplies and holes up with his brother in the brother’s apartment. His brother lives on the 22nd floor and is in a wheelchair, so they do not evacuate the city.

Flash forward 15 or 20 years, and now we follow a group called the Traveling Symphony, incompletely named because they also specialize in Shakespeare productions. The world has changed: almost the entire human population of every continent died of the flu, with only small bands of people left and little technology. There is no more electricity, no more fossil fuel, no more computers. Small communities have formed but are insular and suspicious, and sometimes violent; life is hard. The Traveling Symphony brings some light to this regretful world – art is still beautiful – but the symphony members are not exempt from the hardships; they carry weapons, deal with uncertainty every day.

The story is told in disjointed chronology, jumping back and forth between the pre-collapse world and the world after. Each of these two timelines runs chronologically, but we alternate between the two. The third world is that of Station Eleven, a fictional creation of one of our characters that also bears on the real world both before and after the flu epidemic.

Perspective shifts as well between several characters, some of whom we follow both before and after the collapse – if they survive. They have aged 15-20 years in that time, which presents some interesting possibilities and points of view. It also ramps up the suspense and tension: what happened to this person or that, did she live, does he ever find his loved ones again, and do they see any consequences for their actions? Mandel is expert at teasing us with these questions, and I heartily second Liz’s feeling that this book ends too soon: I too want more.

Mandel exhibits genius in the details of all three of the worlds in this story. Her characters are outstanding: nuanced and complex people with strengths and flaws that we can mostly learn to love but never worship. The struggles of these characters ask questions of the reader: what kinds of behavior are justified by hard times? What technologies would be hardest to live without, and is there anything to be gained by going “back to basics” or back to a less technological era that we often regard as “simpler”? What is the value of art; what do we want out of it? What is the meaning of friendship? If computers and cars and airplanes and iPhones suddenly went away, should we teach the next generation about them or let that history go silent?

As a novel-reading (listening) experience, I thought Station Eleven was nearly as good as it gets: entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, thought-provoking, stimulating, colorful, well-written, compelling. As a cultural critique, I found it useful as well, although as I contemplate global collapse in its various forms and our strategies related to it, I want to think about forms of collapse that are rather more our fault than this is. That’s a little awkward; what I mean is, the flu in this story is sort of an act of god, a thing that happens to us, but I think it would be useful to think about economic, environmental, societal collapse due to human hubris and poor decision-making. The flu could be a version thereof, less directly. Still, its results are instructive or at least stimulating.

The narration on this audio production by Kirsten Potter is very fine. I told my parents partway through that there were two readers, a man and a woman, but that was wrong; between listenings, I clearly got confused, due to Potter’s fine acting of male and female perspectives throughout.

Mandel is a nuanced writer with a keen imagination. I can’t wait to discover more of her work and recommend this novel highly.

Rating: 9 knife tattoos.

5 Responses

  1. I think of the diseases of civilization as also a result of our hubris, on a very grand scale. Think what killed the native peoples of many many places: tuberculosis, flu, measles, cholera. (Include the plague here too if you like.) They come from the agricultural combination of animals and people living closely; they all come from our domesticated animals, and outside the realm of hunter gatherers.

    (Jared Diamond asks the question: why didn’t the Incan king come to Madrid and slay the king of Spain? – in Guns, *Germs* & Steel)

    One of the weapons of agricultural societies was disease. Although we may not have known early on, we learned to deploy this weapon as viciously as any: the free blankets infected with measles caused native folks to suffer exactly as the civilized innocents of the Station Eleven world. (We exterminated 95 percent of the peoples of North America, inadvertently or not.) So the death from flu is precisely a result of our hubris: greater and greater cities, with people closer and closer, giving these microbes the opportunities to do on a societal level what they did on a small scale to *smaller* peoples.

    • Oh, I entirely agree, and thank you for stating it so clearly with good examples. But I still think she missed the opportunity to make it a little clearer; I think there is room for an interpretation in which human hubris is not the star of this downfall, and making that a little more obvious would have made this novel a better conversation starter. But she needn’t have necessarily meant for it to be.

  2. […] Station Eleven*, Emily St. John Mandel – fiction. Imaginative post-apocalyptic novel of a traveling symphony and Shakespeare theatre company in a changed United States. Emphasis on character and story rather than sensationalism of collapse. […]

  3. […] Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – fiction (and the only audiobook on this list) […]

  4. […] will recall how I’ve enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel (here, here). This is Warnick quoting Mandel quoting (the critic) Wilson: whoa. And what a perfect […]

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