Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven is a complex story. Some assembly is required. 

Mandel begins with a death. An actor, Arthur Leander, plays King Lear in an unusual staging of that play: three little girls (who will grow into the king’s quarreling daughters) sit on stage as the curtain rises. Leander falters, flubs a line, flails out a hand searching for support, and collapses, dead of a heart attack.

In the audience, sits Jeevan Chaudhary an aspiring paramedic, recently a member of the paparazzi. Jeevan leaps onto the stage and attempts, unsuccessfully, to revive Arthur, as Kirsten Raymonde, the girl playing Cordelia, looks on. In the ensuing melee, Jeevan leads little Kirsten off to find Tanya, the child’s “wrangler,” and then wanders off into a snowy Toronto night. The rest of the cast retires to a local bar to discuss the evening’s tragic event and provide the reader with some backstory: Arthur’s three divorces, his one son by his second wife. 

Mandel closes this chapter with: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He dies three weeks later on the road out of the city.” Unbeknownst to all, the highly contagious and lethal Georgia flu is quickly devouring the world’s population.

Mandel’s opening of Station Eleven is brilliant, and that brilliance continues throughout the book. Her take on a post-apocalyptic world is not as grim as might be feared. Station Eleven is as much about survival as it is about death and the end of civilization, as we know it. Still, Mandel provides plenty of opportunity for readers to ponder how they might fare in this new world order and the true value of what’s been lost.

Station Eleven moves back and forth in time and place and point of view, as Mandel slowly and carefully constructs her story and connects her multitude of quirky characters in a manner reminiscent of Dickens or possibly Shakespeare. 

We next meet Kirsten, “twenty years after the end of air travel” and follow her, now a member of a traveling Shakespeare company, as they drift from town to town, putting on shows in an often dangerous landscape, where those who survived the epidemic⎯and those who’ve been born since⎯encamp in abandoned box stores, hunt for food, and ransack empty houses for anything useful. They encounter other survivors along the way, including one self-proclaimed prophet.

Kirsten has only a vague memory of the time before, shadowy images of having been in a production of King Lear, for instance, and of the lead actor giving her several volumes of a comic book series called Station Eleven, which she now counts among her most prized possessions. Almost no one, including Kirsten, remembers who wrote the little booklets or why, and yet they begin to take on special significance and power as they make their way across this new land. 

Mandel’s observations about civilization, religion, Shakespeare, and relationships are astute and subtly rendered. The suspense builds slowly, in part because the narrative does not proceed in a straight line. The ending, therefore, doesn’t deliver the punch some readers might want. 

Then again, the final page of Station Eleven isn’t an ending. As Dr. Eleven asks in the comic book version, “What was it like for you, at the end?” The ghost of his mentor, Captain Lonergan, replies, “It was exactly like waking up from a dream.” 

The same might be said of Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel writes of a world that we will, with luck, never know⎯one that is dreamlike (no one keeps track of time, because there are no clocks) and from which readers may well find themselves strangely sorry to wake. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Taking Flight: the Wreluctant Wren

The second of two wrens that hatched in the little birdhouse hanging outside my office window finally fledged. I'd listened to their chatter for several weeks, watched mama and papa fly in with morsels of food and back out with the babies’ fecal sacs carefully clutched in their beaks. To avoid revealing the location of their brood, the parents never dropped the sacs below the nest. I’m curious about this practice: The hatchlings and nestlings almost never stopped twittering, and the parent wrens, while waiting for their eggs to hatch, sat in the lilac and belted out incessant, complicated, melodic trills. (Wrens are known as the little bird with the big voice.) A predator would not have needed any telltale fecal sacs to know where these babies were "hiding."

After the clutch hatched, one parent always hunkered nearby, clucking in response to their babies' ceaseless cheeping. Perhaps this reassured them. It certainly reassured me, as it let me know that the hatchlings were okay. Whenever a parent flew in with food, the babies' twittering rose in both volume and pitch, and I rushed to the window to watch. (A wonderful distraction from writing.)

The big day

Then, the first baby fledged. It left the nest and perched unsteadily on a nearby lilac branch, blinking at the enormity of the world it had just entered, but seemingly unafraid. I took heart from this open attitude: It’s easy to make assumptions about, and become intimidated by, the unknown. Number two wren remained resolutely in the nest-perhaps it was a few days younger-and peered out, maybe wondering where its nest-mate had gone, and why. The parents continued to tend to its needs.

Then, one day, the parents stopped coming. It was rainy and cool for August. The lone baby chirped. Its nest mate, still in the lilac, chirped back. Mom and dad remained silent and absent: no food deliveries. Apparently they'd decided it was time for number two to fledge. 

The wreluctant wren

The chatter between the siblings continued for several hours. Each time I checked on the reluctant fledgling, I saw it peering out through the doorway. Soon its body was halfway out. Come on, little one, I coached silently from my window, worried, though, that the day was too cold and wet for a successful fledging. Each time it ducked back into the safety of its house. Chirp, chirp, chirp beckoned its sib. Out came the little head, followed by half the body. Then a little more than half. Each time I was sure this was it! But each time the tiny bird slipped back inside. Over and over this process repeated itself.

Finally, the wren took the leap. And what a leap. The distance from house to lilac isn't far (perhaps two feet) but in wren terms, it was a long way over, and a long way down, considering that the little duffer had not yet discovered it had wings and could fly. 

This, I thought, is what a leap of faith looks like. The noisy chirper made it, and then hopped from branch to branch, fluttering its unfamiliar appendages as it climbed ever higher. It's sibling cheered the whole time. 

Soon, I heard the deeper chirps of the parent wrens. They'd been close by the whole time, knowing what had to happen. Knowing there was nothing they could do but wait.

How often have any of us stood on a threshold, wondering if it was safe to cross, unsure what lay “over there.” How often have we not made the leap, certain we didn’t have what it took, choosing instead to remain in the safety of the known. How much wiser wrens are, knowing that staying put, not changing, is not only not safer, it's not an option. Wrens seem to know, too, that such leaps are easier if we have faith that someone’s waiting for us on the other side.

Katharine Britton is the author of two novels, Her Sister's Shadow and Little Island