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.