BOOK REVIEW: TECHNICAL SUPPORT Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel— February 2016

Jane TompkinsReviewed by Jane Tompkins

The first post-apocalyptic story I remember was a paperback novel called A Canticle for Leibowitz which I read in junior high. The cover—a slightly sinister black-robed monk standing in a desert landscape—appealed to me: It was nature, spooky religion, catastrophe, and primitive existence rolled into one. Life after a nuclear holocaust has taken over a large segment of  Hollywood’s action thriller department lately, notably in the Oscar-nominated Mad Max: Fury Road, a box office mega-hit, intellectually confused, super violent, chaotic, and visually brilliant; the complete opposite of the post-apocalyptic novel my New York City book group decided to read last month. That book, written by the talented and accomplished Canadian writer Emily Mandel, Station Eleven is an intelligent, culturally sophisticated portrayal of life after the collapse of civilization, and—this is the great thing about it—wonderfully adept at showing us, again and again, the marvelousness of the world we now inhabit.

In Station Eleven it’s not nuclear disaster but a lethal virus, contagious and fast-acting, that wipes out most of the world’s population. The handful who survive are left without electricity or gasoline (automobile fuel goes stale after three years), and hence without everything that supports life as we know it: no mechanized transportation, no electric light, no refrigerators; no TV, radio, or internet; no medical care, no police, no government, industry, retail stores, schools, churches, or banks; no money, no courts of law. Small groups of people gather in encampments, or occupy old gas stations, airports, and motels. (The houses are full of dead bodies.) The novel centers on a group called the Travelling Symphony, a combination orchestra and theater company that moves from settlement to settlement, performing classical music and putting on productions of Shakespeare. Its motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek, painted on one of its horse-drawn vans, is “Because survival is insufficient.”

The plot weaves back and forth in time from the night just before the plague breaks out, when the famous actor Arthur Leander keels over while playing King Lear in Toronto, then back to his romance and break up with his first wife, Miranda, then forward twenty years to his old friend, Clark, founder of the Museum of Civilization—a repository of cell phones, iPads, telephones, radios, magazines and other old-world artifacts, among them a copy of the newspaper that reported the actor’s death. But the best scenes take place in the early years after the disaster, when people had to figure out how to live without showers, new clothes, food they hadn’t killed or grown themselves, or any way to communicate with the rest of the world’s population—whoever or wherever they may be.

People who were born after the plague, or were young when it arrived, can hardly believe that once people flew through the air in silver vessels, could make light instantly in a dark room, cooked dinner in three minutes, looked at screens alight with moving images, and retrieved information at will from a machine. It’s the contrast between this and the life of eating venison, sewing up injuries without anesthesia, and staring at the same line of trees for thirty years that makes the story magical. It forces us to become aware of the vast knowledge, precision manufacturing, and complex infrastructure that goes into making and distributing the products of industrial technology; even more, it gets us to see the sheer beauty of the wondrous inventions we take for granted.

Reading Station Eleven makes it impossible to idealize a life that forces one into constant contact with nature. Chop wood, carry water sounds good in a Zen story, but loses its charm when you have to do it twice a day. The root-and-bone nature of post-apocalyptic existence, on the other hand, highlights the frantic rhythms, superficiality, and decadence of modern urban lifestyles by comparison. The theme that links the pre- and post-disaster eras in this narrative is art. This is where the book’s title comes in.

Station Eleven is the name of an imaginary world created by Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, who draws comics in her spare time. Over the years she produces two, beautifully drawn and colored comic books devoted to life on Station Eleven. Of the few copies that exist, one set falls into the hands of a young boy—Arthur’s son by his second wife—who grows up to be the villain of the story, a cult leader who uses fragments from the Station Eleven comics, along with other ideas, to construct a religion he imposes on his followers who tyrannize the tiny communities they run across—some of them the same ones visited by the Travelling Symphony. Mandel seems to be asking what role art, as opposed to religion, plays in the construction of human life. The renowned actor who dies while playing King Lear is an unhappy man, full of regrets; Miranda, the unknown comic book artist, on the other hand, who becomes an executive with a shipping company, is happy—until she gets the plague and dies. The members of the Travelling Symphony derive pleasure from what they do but, despite their motto, it’s not clear whether art, when added to survival, is sufficient. If you read this highly entertaining and thoughtful book, I’d be interested to know your answer.~

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