Thoughts: Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

Another unlooked-for treasure, this was my treat after reading Covet. Station Eleven is beautiful, in the kind of painful way that only hack writers like me know: I wish I’d written this and now I can’t because it already exists in the world.

As usual, accept my heartfelt recommendation to read this book before reading my idiot thoughts on it. I’m not so worried about spoilers, but it is a great book.

Stay with me past this sentence. Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story about civilisation brought to its knees by a frankly terrifying strain of flu. So far, so oh-my-god-not-another-one-of-these. But no! It’s not what you’re thinking!

Station Eleven flits back and forth across the temporal border separating Before from After, sketching out connections and possibilities and dead ends, a very small torch illuminating a vast maze. And if you’re expecting a grim, brutal “survival is pain” sort of misery-lit (because let’s be honest, that’s what those stories are) then you’re not getting it here. Our main characters (insofar as anyone is main) are in a travelling acting troupe called the Travelling Symphony, who travel around the hamlets and settlements which have sprung up in the wake of the end of civilisation, performing mostly Shakespeare. On their lead caravan is written “Because survival is insufficient,” and the whole book is a defiant cry to that effect. The breakdown of humanity resulted in horror, absolutely, decades of violence and trauma, but this time inevitably ended. That sort of violence can’t sustain itself indefinitely. People will not let it. They settle and begin to build themselves up again. Station Eleven, like its characters, doesn’t spend time dwelling on the bad years. They’re done; let other books tell that story (and they do, over and over again).

Part of the reason I loved it so much (apart from my admitted squeamishness towards relentless ultraviolence) is that it reminded me of my favourite non-fiction, Why the West Rules… For Now. It captured the vertical flexibility of human progress, following in a tradition of falls and rises. I find this bizarrely comforting, and I find Station Eleven comforting in the same way.

If the Travelling Symphony seems a bit trite at first glance, then I can assure you that in the story it’s anything but. We’ve had too much of the Artilleryman‘s shouting about the rubbishness of poems, but survival is insufficient. And the company is a sort of canary in the coalmine of nascent civilisation – things may have settled down, but there are places where they won’t and can’t go, and you suspect that it’s not in those places that electricity and medicine are being discovered. It’s not that one necessarily leads to the other, but they flourish in the same conditions. Invite one in, and other things might spring up too.

The network of connections between time and characters and objects has a pleasing arbitrariness to it. The strangest things are left behind: passports, high heels, useless laptops, a paperweight, a self-published graphic novel. We never know what would survive if we were wiped out right now, or where it would end up. The things in the story have a kind of live of their own, or at least character arcs. The paperweight, completely useless but beautiful. And yes, there’s a spark of selfish hope in that treasured private graphic novel.

One of Covet’s problems was that there was far too much happening, and Station Eleven was a huge change of pace in comparison. The jumping backwards and forwards in time disguised somewhat that technically, not that much happens in Station Eleven, but not in a misleading or disappointing way. Not every story has to be full of action, and a quiet plot doesn’t mean a lack of content any more than a busy plot is necessarily meaningful. Station Eleven’s insistence on avoiding the violence and drama shines a new light on post-apocalyptic fiction. The smallness of the focus on the “present/future” thread of the story on the Travelling Symphony’s journey from town to airport reflects the cut-off nature of life now. The past is global, zipping from Toronto to a Malaysian beach to London to New York, but the characters of the present/future are limited to where they can walk, to how far their voice can carry.

And the prose itself is lovely, just absolutely beautiful. St John Mandel (is that how this works?) has a great eye for the unexpected details, the things you wouldn’t even thinking about losing because you don’t realise you have them. She captures the stranded and lost, caught between places and in the worst situations when the human world collapses, and the universal fascination of old, abandoned places. Even now, when I look up at the sky I find myself wondering what it would look like without contrails.

The characters’ inner voices and observations sometimes overlap in tone, but frankly I enjoyed the voice so much I didn’t care. And just her aesthetic in general synced up 100% with my personal taste. Perhaps unfair that books rely on their readers’ tastes to be loved, but part of the game. The descriptions of the graphic novel in the book, full of cavernous underwater landscapes and giant seahorses on an isolated space station, were from something I want someone to create so I can dive into it.

So there you have it. Time to pack up, post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s done.

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