“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

This was originally written before the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic was full blown in the US. It feels extremely petty now and I’ve lost all steam on finishing it. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed this book and do recommend it to all to read, even if the troubling times depicted seem prescient to the current situation. What is happening now was inevitable, but unlike Station Eleven’s “Georgia Flu,” is survivable.

I first heard about Station Eleven when the author, Emily St. John Mandel, when it was announced that she would be speaking at Cleveland State University. I wasn’t able to attend, but the professor that told me about it said the book was about “a post-apocalyptic theater troupe around the Great Lakes.” I bought the book immediately, because that’s just my jam. I didn’t get a chance to read it until after graduation. I am so glad to have done so— This book isn’t about just the theater troupe. It’s about the dread of the unknown, the collapse of structure, and the rebuilding of life with the rubble that remains. I don’t think I could have appreciated the way St. John Mandel expresses anxiety that freedom brings without recently being freed from something myself. This will be the first time I’m writing about a book that I wasn’t required to read for a class. This is the first time I am writing about something I read for my own enjoyment. This the first time I get to write about my thoughts on the primary source without having to cite several scholarly sources to support my point. I don’t need a thesis. I don’t need a conclusion. All pretension and pseudo-intellectualism is gone! Meeting standards set forth by people who have no direct impact on my personal edification just to prove that I’ve memorized the prescribed literature is gone! No more bullshitting to fill a page-length on a topic I don’t care about! It’s as if all of society has collapsed and I’m now free to do whatever I want! Oh, did I just … I just made a thesis, didn’t I? I don’t care if it’s weak! I don’t care if I don’t prove it! Fuck you, I get to slack now!

A word of warning – there will be spoilers below.

One early thought I had while reading this book is that St. John Mandel uses allusions to Shakespeare right. I’ve read books in the past that feel like the author just wants to shout at the reader about how much great literature they’ve read without taking any sort of time to show the reader how much they know. The pretension of quoting Shakespeare, or anything else in order to be “in” with any crowd, is an affectation St. John Mandel leaves squarely in the past of the world she builds. Shakespeare is one of the few things that survives the end of society, mainly because of the people that know it. Actors can memorize and repeat lines, but the success of the Traveling Symphony isn’t in the rote repetition of the plays. It’s that the actors know why the plays were written, why they were performed, and why they were received so well. She even has characters address directly how Shakespeare himself, not just the plays, has more resonance with the post-apocalyptic society than it did with society pre-apocalypse. There’s no reason for St. John Mandel to quote Shakespeare to prove her worth as a writer or reader, because she’s created a world in which Shakespeare lives and participates with what’s left of society.

The book opens with Shakespeare, and ends with Shakespeare. It opens and ends with Arthur Leander’s death as well. Arthur is the McGuffin glue that connects all other characters together. I imagine St. John Mandel keeping all the relationships together with red-thread connecting pictures of every character and all points leading to Arthur in the center. He’s ancillary: not significant alone but necessary for all other characters to become who they are within the story. His death is extremely significant as it indirectly heralds the end of society, as that night is the night that the Georgia Flu pandemic hits North America. More directly, his death marks the moment Jeevan Chaudhary finally knows what he wants to do with his life. It marks the moment that Kirsten Raymonde, then eight years old, knows that she wants to act for the rest of her life. The next day, his death brings Clark Thompson (Arthur’s “best and oldest friend”), one of Arthur’s ex-wives, and Arthur’s son together at the airport where they share the beginning days of the end.

The connections were weak and implausible at so many points that the reader may start to buy into the Prophet’s claims that “everything happens for a reason” and that it’ll all be revealed in the end. (I’m reminded of the Outer Worlds‘ “Order of Scientific Inquiry”, which believes that there’s a grand Architect whose plans are only known through hindsight. So glad Vicar Max can be freed from that mindset.) It makes me remember I’m reading a book, as well. The characters are integrated in such a way that I can’t see myself being part of them, being one of them, in any way. The connections weaken the “recognition” aspect of Felski’s Uses of Literature. However, there are quite a few portions where snippets of reality blindside me. Miranda Carroll, for example, feels like a direct parallel to me in that she’s an artist that takes a temp job in something not art related and remains there. I took a temp job and, a dozen years later, I’m still here (in a different capacity). Miranda worked on her art projects while at the office. I do the same. Miranda becomes a successful businesswoman in her later years (after divorcing an unfaithful Arthur Leander). I’d love to have that, sans divorce, because I don’t feel like I could make a living off my art or writing. Miranda dies alone in a hotel in a foreign country of the Georgia Flu, shitting and vomiting as the world crumbles around her. I … uh … no thanks.

There are other characters that are brought in for a slice of life as well; ones that provide St. John Mandel’s commentary on modern society a little bluntly. Where she was graceful with her presentation of Shakespeare, she’s ham-fisted with the distaste for the modern world. Clark’s Thompson’s interviewee spells it out when she says that the manager they’re discussing is “sleepwalking” through life. He’s just going through the motions that society tells him should make him happy, and he’s still not happy. “He hates his job and he doesn’t know it yet,” she says. Then there’s Clark’s interaction with the woman Tesh at the dinner party and his reaction to the way she pronounces “Prague.” His entire through process in that party is about how much he doesn’t want to fit in with people that pretentious. Later, there’s Clark’s assessment of his oldest friend, Arthur Leander, as they dine together to catch up. Arthur’s acting, even in front of the man he calls his best friend, because he can’t face his own problems. Post-apocalypse, Clark comes to the realization that, even though he thought himself good at his job, his skillset became useless. He jokes with another character about the business buzzwords found in the last reports he’d done on corporate employees that needed correcting, mocking the world he once was part of. He sets up the Museum of Civilization in the airport he ended up in as the plague spread, where he showcases the obsolete objects of the modern world. Smart phones, credit cards, and passports, once thought essential, were made completely useless in a matter of weeks (along with buzzwords, pretension, and hating one’s job).

Those who survived the flu, found themselves free of the shackles of society. St. John Mandel doesn’t spend much space in the book on people who went feral. Instead she focused on those who chose to reinvent themselves, as Clark did as a museum curator, or create a life where they do what they love, as Kirsten Raymonde did.

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