October 2014

Mary Akers

fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In Emily St. John Mandel's newest novel, Station Eleven, the Georgia flu has decimated the world's population, leaving survivors to adapt, or die.

At the start -- and end -- of the novel, fifty-one-year-old Arthur Leander dies while playing King Lear onstage in Toronto, two weeks before the Georgia flu hits. In the first recounting of his death, we experience it through the eyes of the young man who tries to save him, Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic-in-training. In the second recounting of Arthur's death, we experience his end-of-life regrets along with him. In the pages in between, we follow Arthur and the many people whose lives have intersected with his: his best friend, Clark; his three ex-wives; his young son, Tyler; and a seven-year-old actress named Kirsten Raymonde, who is onstage with Arthur when he dies.

Arthur befriends Kirsten, who is the same age as his son, and gives her two hand-drawn comic books (Dr. Eleven, Vol. 1 No. 1: "Station Eleven" and Dr. Eleven, Vol. 1 No. 2: "The Pursuit") that his first wife, Miranda, spent years creating in relative isolation. Kirsten treasures the books, and she then spends fifteen years searching the now-ravaged Earth for any other Arthur-related artifacts she can find, such as newspaper clippings and gossip magazine articles. Kirsten is obsessed with these artifacts and also with Dr. Eleven, the hero of the comic books, who heads a space station of disgruntled colonists who only want to go home, see sunlight, people who "spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin."

As in any post-apocalyptic world, the new society that arises is defined by what its members choose to keep. The various survivors in this world choose (among other things) comic books, music, theatre, Shakespeare, the Bible, and a paperweight from Rome. And Clark, Arthur's best friend -- before fame drove a wedge between them -- begins and maintains The Museum of Civilization, located in the abandoned Severn City airport and filled with artifacts from the pre-flu era: car engines, long-dead cell phones, laptops, credit cards, and passports. It will not escape the reader that these very objects are the things that drive our lives today. And that's the point the author seems to be making. Appreciate it now. This could all go away.

In this new, chaotic, largely empty world, survivors find comfort where they can, often in words and phrases carried with them from the old world:

"I repent nothing," says Arthur's first wife Miranda, a call of courage to her anxious reflection in the mirror.

"Survival is insufficient," boasts the traveling symphony, its motto painted on their caravan and permanently tattooed on Kirsten's forearm.

"Everything happens for a reason," pronounces Arthur's second wife, mother of his only son -- a strange, overly religious child who embraces his mother's easy platitudes as a rationale for judgment and violence.

Jeevan, forced to leave his wheelchair-bound brother behind, hopes he can hold onto something that will anchor him to life, to earth. He walks and muses:

My name is Jeevan Chaudhary. I was a photographer and then I was going to be a paramedic. My parents were George of Ottawa and Amala of Hyderabad. I was born in the Toronto suburbs. I had a house on Winchester Street. But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments. This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air. Finally whispering the same two words over and over. "Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking."

Themes in this wonderfully moving speculative work include longing, ambition, fate, outsiderism, reinvention, betrayal, immortality, abandonment, and any number of haunting unknowns (like the Air Gradia jet filled with passengers that lands and then parks farther down the tarmac and never opens its doors, sealing its passengers inside forever).

In many ways, Station Eleven is a love song for the modern world, writ large. A story of the indomitable human spirit and of making a life against enormous odds. In the final pages, one has the sense of having glimpsed something important and mysterious, of having touched a rare and secret truth.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0385353304
352 pages