Station Eleven


What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheekbone half-erased by candlelight. The audience is silent. Sayid, circling her in a tuxedo that Kirsten found in a dead man’s closet near the town of East Jordan: “Tarry, rash wanton. Am I not thy lord?”

Before the flu came, Kirsten had been a child actress in a Toronto production of King Lear. (The production included Lear’s daughters as children in a dream sequence.) On the play’s last night, perhaps the last night of any play, Arthur Leander, playing Lear, died of a heart attack during the performance. At around the same time, the hospital in Toronto, like hospitals everywhere, was filling up with patients sick with the lethal and highly contagious Georgia flu. Within a few weeks, practically everyone was dead.

Twenty years later, Kirsten goes from town to town with the Traveling Symphony, a band of musicians formed in Year Five that later merged with a traveling troupe of actors. Together, they roam around Lakes Huron and Michigan, performing music and Shakespeare in the towns they find.

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven follows Kirsten on her travels, but her story is just one of the many intertwined tales and times. We watch as Arthur Leander goes through one marriage after another. We see his first wife, Miranda, escape by creating art in the form of a comic book that she doesn’t necessarily even want to publish. We follow the former paparazzo and future paramedic Jeevan as he prepares to survive the coming collapse. And we see Arthur’s friend Clark curate memories in an airport museum that becomes a local legend. The book is an elegy for our present day, a recognition of why we tell stories, remember, and dream.

Much of what happens in the book will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction. If you’ve read The Road, you’ve seen the violence that comes from the need to survive. If you’ve read The Dark Tower series, you’ve seen the abandoned towns and inoperative technologies. But Mandel’s weaving together of timelines was new to me. In my cynical moments, I wondered if the weaving, and the jumps back and forth in time, were a way to make the story seem more profound and artfully done than it is. Would it have an impact told chronologically? But that’s a silly question. Mandel wove it this way to make a greater impact. That is her art. (A better question might be whether the timelines make sense if rearranged chronologically. I think they do, but I haven’t examined them thoroughly enough to be sure.)

As much as I enjoyed this book, right from the start, for its elegant prose and wistful tone, I couldn’t quite understand why it seemed to be such a hit with so many readers. It’s a good book, but not that good. It’s a book a lot of people would like, but it didn’t seem like a book everyone would love. It hadn’t particularly gotten under my skin.

But then there’s a moment near the end that happens in an air-traffic control tower. Just a little bit of light. A question and a hope. For some reason, that moment got to me. I’m as surprised as anyone that this little light is what did it. I’m not a person who believes technology holds all the answers or that we’re more clever today because we have electricity and running water and the Internet when people of the past did not. But this world, full of ghosts of what had been, made me terribly sad.

A lot of this book seems to involve people finding hope and comfort in stories. Miranda writes a story to comfort herself. Kirsten later reads that story and collects stories of Arthur Leander from old gossip magazines. There are debates about which stories to continue telling. Should children born after the collapse even know about the past? What will that story do to them? Should the Traveling Symphony tell more “modern” stories dealing with practical realities of post-collapse life? And does art have value when it isn’t shared—or when the audience doesn’t understand it or misuses it for his own ends? These are all good questions, and there are no easy answers to them. But my cynical side sometimes thinks that questions about art and literature within a book striving to be literature are an easy way to win the audience over. Get them to take you seriously by taking the thing they love seriously. (It’s my cynical side—not my best side.)

That light, though, viewed from afar got around my cynical side and showed me that hope can take a different form besides art. Those ghosts—the power plants and automobiles and computers—could also be a beacon, giving people something to strive for. Living with technology every day, it’s easy to take for granted what a miracle a light switch or an electric sewing machine or a refrigerator really is. Technology and our poor use of it creates many problems, but it also solves them. Mandel’s society, where all is lost, is grim. Most people who survive had to kill someone along the way. And a little bit of light means things could get just a little easier.

The characters in this book are strivers, and striving means hope. Not everyone strives in the same way. Some are creators, and others are performers. Some travel, and others stay put. But they all seem to be looking for a way to make a life that works. Kirsten has the phrase “Survival is insufficient” (from Star Trek: Voyager) tattooed on her arm, and I think that in the world of this novel her attitude is necessary to survival. Without something to strive for—a performance, a museum exhibit, a light—there’s little reason to go on.

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22 Responses to Station Eleven

  1. Jeanne says:

    One of the things I loved about this book was the way it showed people living an examined life. Jeevan’s brother knew what was up. People with tattoos knew. Arthur Leander’s little boy did not know, because his mother let him escape into video games and then the little copy of the Bible. She didn’t talk about those things with him. He grew up the way the sleepwalking corporate people Graham had intervened with lived, never thinking about why they did anything but blindly following a path.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good point that hadn’t occurred to me. The people who seemed more capable of living well (or dying well) were the ones who lived an examined life. And it seemed like some people, like Clark, were finally able to have that kind of life when the other pressures and distractions were taken away.

  2. Alyssa says:

    I actually really liked Station Eleven, and when everything was coming together from beginning to near-the-end, it was all perfect and the pieces fit together well. (In my head, at least; like you, I haven’t yet read it chronologically.) But the end didn’t feel as satisfying. Like you said, the light was a very poignant touch, but it didn’t all click and fall together. That said, the awesomeness earlier overshadowed this, so it was still a nice book :)

    • Teresa says:

      That’s interesting because I thought the ending tied everything together just enough—not too conclusive but enough threads brought together for me to see the connections clearly.

  3. Bridget says:

    I think this is the first non-rave review of this that I’ve seen, but your description makes me even more curious about it. I think I’m definitely going to read it, but I’m going to go into it a little more cautiously now.

  4. Rachel says:

    I’m so so curious about this book! I bought it with some Christmas money after having read and watched so many rave reviews of it… I’m even more interested to read it now that you’ve posted this – I love how you analyse your own analysis! Great review :)
    Rachel @ Dashing Good Books

  5. russell1200 says:

    The author was very careful to give it the feel of a mainstream novel. As Jo Walton noted somewhere, Science Fiction (of which collapse novels tend to be a subset) often make the world itself one of the main characters, where as literary novels set in a science fiction setting tend to have the world as a backdrop. I think the author does a pretty good job of pulling that off. She throws in a lot of items popular in current mainstream novels (strong women characters, YA-style youth development) which helps to give the general audience some themes to latch onto.

    The author noted herself that she did not want to call the novel science fiction, not because it wasn’t science fiction, but because she was afraid to have it labeled as a “genre” book.

    I liked the book a lot. The knife throwing was a bit of an eye-roll moment, but it’s no worse than the endless/weightless ammunition problem. I didn’t completely connect with the theme of artistic aspirations, but it certainly was a nice change of form from the typical Post-Apocalyptic themes.

    • Teresa says:

      It always make me sad when authors say they don’t want to consider their novels “science fiction” or “fantasy” or whatever. I can see why they do it, but it seems like they’re saying high-quality writing isn’t part of those genres, when it very much can be. But it seems to have worked for Mandel, just as it has for Margaret Atwood. And I see what you’re saying about the setting being a backdrop rather than a character. She avoids some of the “info dumping” you find in a lot of science fiction, which means a lot of questions aren’t answered, but those questions don’t matter to the story she’s telling, so it’s OK.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Have you read Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars? Completely different, but post-apocalyptic (also the result of some sort of disease)–also with a scene in an air traffic tower, although certainly not with the positive vibe of this book!

  7. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    Fabulous review! I am one of those who adored this book, finding it so elegant in the way she tied everything together. Altogether less grim than The Road and others of the ilk. I really enjoyed the airport/museum scenes and liked the ending too with the glimmer of hope.

    • Teresa says:

      The airport scenes were among my favorites. I think I could have read a whole book just set in that airport. It was so interesting how it retained its original function as a transit point even after the planes stopped.

      • I would SO have read a book just set in that airport. Oh, now I wish someone would write that book. I have a game a play (it is not crazy, I have heard of other people who do this) in airports or on museum tours where I imagine what would happen if there was a sudden apocalypse and the people in the room with me were the only people left on earth. Which is basically what the airport is. That would be a super book for me.

      • Teresa says:

        I’ve never played that game at the airport or anywhere else, but now I probably will, along with a game of which shops would be the most reasonable to plunder.

        And I’m glad I’m not the only one fascinated by that airport. I think that’s why I liked the last part of the book the most, because so much of it was set there. I wanted to know so much more about it.

  8. Stefanie says:

    I’m glad you ended up enjoying the book. It’s one I really liked. The scenarios seemed plausible to me and while there is violence, it’s not the grim gruesome kill or be killed relentlessness of other books like this. I especially enjoyed the storytelling angle. And I thought it was wonderfully plotted and enjoyed seeing the pieces all fit together.

    • Teresa says:

      I appreciated the way she managed the gruesomeness by just skipping past a lot of it but including enough of the aftereffects, as well as some present problems, to show that it is a factor in people’s lives. There were a lot of different textures in the world of this book, and I liked that about it.

  9. whatsheread says:

    I was not and am still not a fan of this book. It just didn’t click with me. I didn’t feel any connection to the characters; the whole story just felt too distant. There is a distinct lack of emotion that I found off-putting as well. However, your comment about the light did strike a chord with me. Unfortunately, I feel that is the point in the novel where the story truly got interesting.

    • Teresa says:

      I was interested enough in the characters, but I didn’t feel strongly about any of them, either to like or dislike. That’s probably why I didn’t love it as much as I expected. I do think I could have loved a book about the airport or about people going to find out what’s up with the light (and/or the people trying to get the lights on).

  10. Anne Simonot says:

    There was a certain level of detachment with the characters for me too. I liked Station Eleven, it was well-written and thoughtful, hopeful, and did avoid the grimness of many post-apocalyptic novels; but I didn’t love it.

    I too have read The Dog Stars. Funnily enough, I could say many of the same things about it, but somehow it engaged me more fully. There was one part that left me with tears in my eyes. Anyone who’s read it, I’m sure you know the bit I’m referring to!

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