By Eamonn Walsh, For The Miami Student
In Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, the reader is introduced to a cast of six characters whose world’s are turned upside down with the coming of the apocalypse. These six characters are each given intermittent time in the spotlight as St. John Mandel moves throughout the non-chronological plot and splices chapters and sections with insights into the lives of the six.
The main characters of this novel are Arthur Leander, an aging movie star; Kristen Raymonde, a child actor who is in Arthur’s last performance; Miranda, Arthur’s first wife; Clark, Arthur’s best friend; Jeevan Chaudhary, a former celebrity photographer turned paramedic who is in the audience during Arthur’s final show; and the “prophet,” a shadowy figure who arises out of the ashes of the fallen world and interprets everything that happened as an act of God. These characters guide the plot through the new world and the old as new challenges present themselves and old issues resurface.
A warning to the reader: this is unlike any post-apocalyptic novel that has come before. There are no epic battle scenes, no ravaging hordes of vampires/zombies and no elicit love trysts. Instead, there are elements of more traditional novels, such as divorce, coming of age and family all set against the backdrop of the world’s end. This seems to be the in vogue way to do this sort of novel now and St. John Mandel’s novel appears to be the successor to such contemporary classics as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One,” both are post-apocalyptic novels that deal with humanity, instead of its absence.
When the story begins, it is Arthur Leander’s last performance. The setting is a theater in Toronto and the play is “King Lear.” Arthur dies that night of a heart attack and later the next day, a mysterious illness known as the Georgia Flu becomes airborne. This is, of course, the disease that will end 99 percent of the human race, but now much is known about its symptoms. The most the reader gets is when a newscaster says that “it is like the flu, except much worse,” you feel sick in the morning, are bedridden by night, and dead the next day. Once the flu has occurred, the plot abruptly jumps approximately twenty years and the reader meets the grown-up Kristen Raymonde. Kristen bivouacs with a group known as the Traveling Symphony. The Symphony travels from settlement to settlement performing Beethoven and Shakespeare in exchange for food and temporary shelter. They view their mission as necessary and meaningful because they are stubbornly retaining part of the old culture and because they are trying to hold onto small slivers of the lives they used to lead.
Eventually, the Symphony arrives in a town called St. Deborah by the Water in an attempt to find two members of the group who absconded a year or two prior. However, the town has since been taken over by the prophet and his group of believers who are overly protective of the townspeople and extremely hostile to visitors. From here, the novel is more mystery than dystopian as increasingly tense moments leave the troupe searching for kidnapped members of the Symphony.
Interspersed throughout these adventure scenes in what use to be Michigan, St. John Mandel weaves the tales of Arthur Leander’s previous life which includes Miranda, Clark, and Jeevan. The reader sees the personal drama that unfolds in each of their lives as they interact with Arthur and how they dealt with the plague and it’s outcome. It is easy to see in these interwoven stories the genius of St. John Mandel’s writing. Her prose is dreamlike in quality and her attention to detail is expertly evidenced when she speaks about ordinary things that are extraordinary in this new, ravaged world. She writes, “There was a moment on Earth, improbable in retrospect and actually briefer than a moment in the span of human history, more like the blink of an eye, when it was possible to make a living solely by photographing and interviewing famous people.” Not only is St. John Mandel an expert at making the future look bleak, she is also superbly skilled at rendering the present as meaningless in comparison.
The only problem I had with the novel was the way that death was casually glossed over, as if the author was brushing away flies. This is the new, post-modern way of writing this kind of novel now; there is no long passages of lament, death is written with an ineffable quality. St. John Mandel writes about character’s dying with the same urgency as a grocery list. Characters are described as dying “three weeks later on the road” or “of exposure outside of Quebec.” At times this has an eerie quality, but mostly the reader is left with the feeling that they missed something.
Shortlisted for the National Book Award and longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, “Station Eleven” is a novel that is absolutely worth all of the attention and honors it has garnered. St. John Mandel writes with a subterranean energy that catches the reader off-guard and keeps them coming back for more. Hopefully, the young author has plenty of similar novels in the future.