Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel Station Eleven recently made the National Book Award’s shortlist for fiction. This ambitious story tackles a post-apocalyptic world in which a super flu has wiped out the majority of the population. Examining themes of celebrity and memory, Mandel explores how our world would change in the face of a major collapse.
The book begins with a stage play of King Lear. Arthur Leander is an A-list celebrity who drops dead during the performance, an event that might otherwise dominate a fame-obsessed culture. However, this night marks the beginning of a super-flu outbreak that begins in Toronto and explodes “like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth.” Ninety-nine percent of people die, leaving the world pockmarked with survivors. Among the living is Kirstin Raymonde, one of the girls in the play. As Station Eleven oscillates between descriptions of the flu as it unravels and twenty years later when the world is still reshaping, Arthur’s rise to fame and Kirstin’s post-apocalyptic life draw the focus of the narrative.
As an adult, Kirstin has the rough edges one might expect from having lived through an apocalypse, though she isn’t entirely jaded. She is part of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors performing Shakespeare as they roam from town to town through wild backcountry. Kirstin saves magazine clippings about Arthur that she finds in abandoned houses. Her motivation is driven in part by her memory loss—she cannot recall the year of the collapse—but also by the fact that Arthur’s fame has encapsulated him in time. The clippings comfort Kirstin because they anchor her in a world that was simpler, safer, and easier to live in, even if she cannot remember it well.
Aside from Kirstin’s friends in the Travelling Symphony, the rest of the characters in the novel are products of Arthur’s life: his ex-wives, children, agents, friends, and even the paparazzi who photographed him. Those who have survived the flu have their own unique journeys into Year Twenty and Mandel excels at weaving these lives together as the mystery and suspense of Station Eleven propels readers forward. A post-apocalyptic novel does run the risk of being cliché. Readers are saturated with stories about a future our civilization cannot predict but seems obsessed with foretelling. And Mandel’s depiction of a fallen world has many of the elements you might expect. “Ferals” roam the countryside, religious cults threaten to usurp peaceful communities, and starvation and loneliness are constant pressures. However, for a book about the world’s collapse, Station Eleven is remarkably quiet. Its interests seem more aligned with examining ideas of nostalgia, memory, and art than thrilling with knife fights (though there are those, too).
As Kirstin leaves an abandoned house she wonders about a time when people locked their doors: “That’s what it would have been like, she realized, living in a house. You would leave and lock the door behind you, and all through the day you would carry a key.” Mandel’s characters often reflect on old-world relics. They think about cars, planes, iPhones, computers—even high heels—but these contemplations are hardly shallow. Like Kirstin’s interest in Arthur’s celebrity clippings, they offer a reflection of contemporary life, a single layer of modern happiness.
Mandel pushes this idea further with deeper examinations of what it means to be happy. When Kirstin thinks: “Hell is the absence of the people you long for” she voices an age-old declaration. It isn’t the material things that matter, but the people you share your life with and the honesty with which you’ve been living it. Other characters echo this sentiment. One of Arthur’s friends recalls a report he was working on, a document he carried on a flight as the flu broke out. He reads a piece of transcribed dialogue: “That’s what passes for a life… That’s what passes for happiness…” In remembering how much the statement affected him he wonders, “when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration?”
As Station Eleven considers happiness both on a profound level and in material pleasures, it brings a thoughtful perspective to a fallen world. Its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world aligns more with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, another quiet novel where a super flu has wiped out the population, than stories like The Walking Dead, On the Road, or World War Z. Station Eleven implies that a major collapse might cripple the world, but would not ruin it, nor the people who remain. Most of Station Eleven’s characters remain good at heart, simple even, clinging to memories that reflect the old world both profoundly and superficially. After all, it is a line from Star Trek Voyager: “Survival is insufficient” and not, say, a line from Shakespeare that is the Travelling Symphony’s mantra. Perhaps Mandel is saying art, memory, and remembrance are just as significant as more lowbrow cultural landmarks, and in the face of the world’s bleak landscape it is okay to long for both in equal measure.
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer