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.