We live in unprecedented times. March has felt like an unusually long month, one in which the Coronavirus Crisis has worryingly deepened leading to higher anxiety levels. As I write this today, there remains a big question mark over when this crisis will end or fade away. Will things go back to normal, will the world ever be the same again?
Meanwhile, the mandate to stay home means that there is more time on my hands to read books (only if I stop incessantly checking my phone). But rather than read lighter fare, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
The central premise and the characters…
The premise in Station Eleven is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.
When the novel opens, it is the last day of any normalcy in Northern America before the deadly virus encompasses the region killing millions. Arthur Leander, a renowned actor is performing on stage in a Toronto Theatre. While delivering his lines in the midst of Act 4 of King Lear, he suddenly collapses and dies on stage.
A person from the audience Jeevan Chaudhary – training to be a medical doctor – rushes onto the stage and tries to perform CPR on Leander but to no avail. Meanwhile, Jeevan spots a young girl in the wings, around 8 years old – Kirsten Raymonde – who is shaken by what she has seen, and who he tries to comfort. That is one thread of the novel and the core of the first section.
In the second section, we then move forward around twenty years after the Georgian Flu killed most of America. Kirsten Raymonde is now walking the length of the country with a band of travellers and actors called the Travelling Symphony. They visit little towns and settlements and entertain the people by performing Shakespearean plays.
In this way, the novel switches back and forth between the storylines in the world before the Flu and after.
There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.
A lot of the book focuses on Arthur Leander, his path to success and riches and the consequences of his failed marriages. Many other characters populate the novel but they all in some form or other are associated with Arthur Leander. There’s Miranda, Arthur’s first wife (he goes on to marry twice and also fathers a son in his second marriage called Tyler), who never really settles down to being the glamourous wife of an actor – the endless parties and media scrutiny. Being a graphic artist, she finds solace in her comic-book project called Station Eleven – a sort of a science fiction series featuring Dr Eleven and his adversaries from the Undersea who escape the Earth through a wormhole when the planet is attacked.
There’s Jeevan Chaudhary who just before the end of the world so to speak was training to be a paramedical but had dabbled in various jobs before particularly in tabloid journalism. Another character is Clark Thompson who strikes up a friendship with Leander when both are aspiring actors in their teens, but subsequently goes on to a corporate career.
In the new world, within the Travelling Symphony, we are introduced to several characters – some who were born much before the Flu and therefore were witness to both the worlds, and others who were born after. The actors fear the prophet and have to grapple with his extreme views and his band of religious fanatics.
Throughout the book, all these characters and their storylines intermingle.
The Old World and the New…
One of the themes that the author explores and particularly struck a chord with me was the destruction of the world as we know it and adjusting to the new. In the world that we live in, we pretty much take things for granted. It is a way of life we begin to yearn for and whose significance is sharply brought to focus only when it is destroyed or taken away from us. Through her characters, Emily St John Mandel also increasingly emphasizes on the marvels of technology, especially when it comes to travel and communication, things which were in abundance in the old world and pretty much unthinkable in the new.
More importantly, can people who were born in the old world and used to its ways ever adjust to the changed reality of the present world?
Some towns, as I (Kirsten) was saying, some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to a place once where the children didn’t know the world had ever been different, although you’d think all the rusted-out automobiles and telephone wires would give them a clue.
This is a recurrent theme in Miranda’s comic-book project as well where Dr Eleven and his adversaries are hiding in the deep reaches of space. But while Dr Eleven has accepted this change in circumstances, the inhabitants of the Undersea yearn to go back to Earth, to a way of life they once had.
What do you want to be remembered for?
The pursuit of fame and a meaningful life is also a topic the author dwells on. Arthur Leander wants fame, works hard for it, gets it and yet is an unhappy man in his final years. Will he be remembered for his successful career or his failed personal life?
There is also a striking conversation that Clark Thompson has with a woman in the old world where she articulates the perils of being stuck in a job that one is not enjoying that shakes Thompson profoundly.
“I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction…
You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’ clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”
Objects, motifs and haunting scenes…
In the first chapter, in those final hours when the reality of the virus is beginning to hit home, there is a scene where Jeevan heads to the supermarket and begins to stock up (hoard?) on various goods and essentials; which was uncannily similar to what we have been witnessing during the present coronavirus crisis.
On that very day, a plane lands in Severn City Airport. But no passengers disembark. It is implied that a passenger down with the flu must have infected the others and so it has been quarantined away from the airport. Twenty years later, the plane continues to be parked there.
While there are some characters who find themselves navigating both the worlds, certain objects find their way in the new reality too. For instance, Miranda’s (Arthur’s first wife) is the creator of the Station Eleven comics in the old world, and they are in Kirsten’s possession twenty years later. A beautiful glass paperweight that Clark gifts to Arthur and Miranda is also with Kirsten now. As is a book whose contents include letters written by Arthur to an unnamed person ‘V’ detailing certain aspects of his personal life. In the new world, there is the Museum of Civilization which exhibits various mementos and things from the old world which are novelties in a post-flu world.
Station Eleven is excellent, but to label it a science fiction novel would in some sense be inaccurate. Yes, the central premise is certainly dystopian – a lethal virus contaminates a world and destroys humanity. But the author is much more interested in the human angle of this development and how people adapt to two different realities rather than describing the minute details of an altered world. It is what makes the novel very rich, immersive and absorbing. My only quibble is that some threads were tied up too neatly in the end (I have begun to appreciate ambiguity more).
But that in no way takes away the fact that Station Eleven is a vividly imagined and unique novel, one that will simmer in the mind for quite some time.