Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Survival is insufficient

There are thoughts of freedom and imminent escape. I could throw away almost everything, she thinks, and begin all over again.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, begins with a production of King Lear; the lead seemingly has a heart attack and dies on stage. Meanwhile there's a flu outbreak across the city. The pandemic ultimately wipes out most of the human population. Traffic grinds to a halt and the lights go out. This is the story of what happens 20 years later. This is the story of what survives.

Despite expecting to dislike this book, I really enjoyed it. While reading it, I talked about it all the time, recommended it to everyone I knew. A week on, however, I'm pretty hazy on the details, so I'm not convinced of its staying power. But I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a good apocalypse story.

For all its subject matter, it is a gentle, quiet book. And Mandel has an optimistic view of humanity. Senselessness is limited. Her survivors mostly choose civility. They have a sense of wonder and respect toward the accomplishments of the past. The wandering troupe of performers, the Symphony, has as its motto, "Survival is insufficient." They preserve Shakespeare. So while survivors may not be overly concerned with restoring electricity, they cultivate grace and patience, a certitude that they will regain all of any relevance that had been lost.

"Station Eleven" refers to a space station named for Dr Eleven, who features in a comic book created pre-apocalypse by the first wife of the actor who played Lear (Arthur). Although the space station is the last outpost of humanity and under threat, it is also a safe haven, in particular for its author — she retreats from her marriage into its creation. Of course, it's a metaphor for the burgeoning community of survivors the Symphony finally reaches. It is a utopia, amid dystopian circumstances.

All the characters in Station Eleven are linked to Arthur. I almost wonder if this book couldn't be read metaphorically as a judgement of him. The plague was his doing, his egotism. I see him dying as Lear, seeing his past flash across his consciousness and the extrapolation of its consequences on everyone whose life he touched. They are all stronger for having survived him. Arthur took Miranda for granted, but she threw that life away, began again, and created a Station Eleven. He feels remorse and is redeemed.

Read/hear more about what survives on NPR.

Here's a passage that struck me for reasons quite apart from the story at hand:
Viola had a harrowing story about riding a bicycle west out of the burnt-out ruins of a Connecticut suburb, aged fifteen, harbouring vague notions of California but set upon by passersby long before she got there, grievously harmed, joining up with other half-feral teenagers in a marauding gang and then slipping away from them, walking alone for a hundred miles, whispering French to herself because all the horror in her life had transpired in English and she thought switching languages might save her, wandering into a town through which the Symphony passed five years later.
I came across a similar sentiment regarding language switching earlier this year. I think I need to learn a new language, to go beyond where my current words can take me.


Stefanie said...

I liked the book too, recommended it to a lot of people but never think about it any longer unless I see the title somewhere. It's good for sure, but I agree, I don't think it has staying power.

Mongo, At The Moment said...

I read Station Eleven around the same time as attending a production of 'The Simpsons (A Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy)' at ACT in San Francisco, both of which use the image of Chautauqua-as-survival-tool. I enjoyed the book; hated the play.

I hope a book will do three basic things: Suspend my disbelief (does this created world hang and bend together, even if [like China Mieville] it's fantasy?); Make me care about the characters; Make me say Goddamn it; I don't want to sleep yet, what happens next? Mandel's book did that.

And, it had a believable ending which I almost didn't see coming -- I was expecting something like Heller's 'The Dog Stars', another dystopian post-pandemic romp -- but I also agree: Even though it deals with the collapse of civilization, it's a fine and gentle tale, and doesn't completely stick.

Isabella K said...

Yup, Mandel hits your 3 points, Mongo. Those are good criteria.

I will definitely look out for more of her books, but wouldn't be surprised if this one is mostly forgotten by the world in a few years.