Post-apocalyptic literature assumes the worst: pestilence, viruses and zombie uprisings fill the pages of many top-selling books, television shows and video games. It is also a genre that immediately forces questions of meaning onto its readers. What does it mean to survive? What is worth holding onto? To what lengths might people go in order to preserve what they see as good, pure and honorable?
In Emily St. John Mandel’s new book, Station Eleven, the answer to that question is both complex and transcendent. Mandel depicts a world that is laid low by the “Georgian flu,” which is brought to North America via a crashed Russian airplane and which wipes out over half the continent in less than two weeks. What remains is what we might expect: abandoned airports, the loss of electricity, “hungry dogs.”
But what is not expected is the work of a small group of survivors who name themselves the Traveling Symphony, performing Shakespeare in whatever small holdouts will accept them, including a handful of strangers holed up in an abandoned IHOP. They collect costumes from the closets of emptied homes; they rehearse lines while pushing their caravan along Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and the St. Clair River. It is art that is preserved in Mandel’s flu-ridden wasteland, and it is the longing for beauty and connection that pulses in the stories - both pre- and post-flu - that Mandel stitches together.
On the night that the flu begins its spread, Arthur Leander, a famous actor, dies onstage during a performance of King Lear. A young child actor named Kirsten, playing one of Lear’s daughters, weeps while another man, Jeevan, fails at CPR. Fifteen years later, Kirsten performs in the Traveling Symphony. In her travels, she discovers a sinister development in a town called St. Deborah by the Water, where a self-made prophet leads the people with a dangerous, hypnotic power - and the promise of a grave for whoever disagrees with him.
Mandel gives us a way to ponder what beauty is, what connection is and how these things might help us bear under the difficulties of the here and now.
What Mandel, the author, does extremely well is create an intensely believable history. The novel alternates between stories about Arthur’s love life and fame, Jeevan’s regret over his days as a paparazzi reporter and Kirsten’s wrangling with the prophet, who sees the flu as a “divine cleansing.” While these characters’ lives could be seen as overly complicated, Mandel weaves the narratives together with great nuance and intricacy, which turns the novel into something more lyrical and poignant than a post-apocalyptic thriller.
What I appreciate about Station Eleven is not only its structure, but its regard for the variety of things that capture something about what it means to be human: a collection of comic books; a children’s china playset; rosin for bows and strings. What remains important about these artifacts, including Shakespeare, is their ability to capture and illuminate what is beautiful or meaningful in a life, even if the novel’s characters are unable to articulate this at all times.
Mandel’s novel, for me, adds something essential for Christian readers of post-apocalyptic literature. Mandel gives us a way to ponder what beauty is, what connection is and how these things might help us bear under the difficulties of the here and now, where our social media feeds can fuel any number of fears about the state of the world and how, in an instant, things might change in ways we cannot expect or imagine.
Station Eleven acts as a challenge to those of us who might chirp Bible verses about the end times whenever something - say Ebola or ISIS – emerges in the news that makes us feel uncomfortable. The novel’s prophet carries around a tape-bound collection of the New Testament, and his insistence that the flu was a visitation of God, that it left “the pure,” is eerily reminiscent of something you might see on The 700 Club.
But the novel also shows its characters hoping, often against their lot, that there is something else that draws them together, something that urges them to perform Shakespeare and seek friends in dangerous towns. They do this not because they merely exist, but because - as Kirsten’s tattoo reads in homage to Star Trek: Voyager - “survival is insufficient.”