Is it possible to write an epilogue for the world?
That was the feeling I got, anyway, from the much acclaimed Station Eleven, a book only about 330 pages long but took me months to read. I got it for Christmas. It’s not that I’ve been busy, which I have, it’s just that the book gives you what can only be accurately called “the feels.” You can’t take too much of it at one time, like a cocktail that’s a little bit too bitter and doesn’t trick you into thinking it’s juice. Mmm… where was I?
In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel weaves together the spoiler for the last page of the world. Civilization is dead from a pandemic called the Georgia Flu, and the survivors gather in the aftermath to begin the arduous task of life without electricity, gas, or internet (NOOOOOOOO…) The story is woven around the pivotal character of Arthur Leander, a movie and theater actor who dies on stage almost on the day the world ends. The people he touches are the seeds of this new civilization. I won’t ruin everything, but my favorite character was Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife. I’m shipping that as his true love, okay?
Knowing what happened to everybody from the outset is, obviously, what gives the whole book its epilogue feel. The first chapters have a definite post-apocalyptic survival atmosphere and the last chapters feel almost like a eulogy- you know what happened, and you are ready to get back up and begin again. If reaching catharsis is what separates literature from genre fiction, then ESJM has firmly staked out her camp on one side of the fence.
Station Eleven feels like a piece of art that has been pored over for ages, polished and buffed and trimmed until it is absolutely perfect. Which is what Miranda does in the book, taking years to create the titular Station Eleven comic. This is interesting because certain details of the characters’ lives mirror ESJM’s life exactly. ESJM acknowledges the semi-memoir nature of Station Eleven by creating echoes of Arthur’s and Miranda’s life in her comic. Far from being pretentious, the themes play off each other, creating a sort of echo chamber of reflection on the nature of life, the passing of years and the piling on of regrets. It’s wonderful, beautiful to read.
This same sort of self-awareness extends to the post-apocalyptic sections, where characters reference the oddness of not having zombies and talk about all the things they miss. There’s a struggle between the people who still cling to the old way of living and the young who have never known anything else, and just want to go on. It’s easy to miss if ESJM didn’t also include the specter of The Prophet, who is easy to hate until you find out who he is, why he does what he does. He embodies a sort of conservation of old values that don’t belong in the new world, while Kristen is living entirely in the new. She’s part of the Traveling Symphony, musicians and actors who go from place to place preserving Shakespeare and Beethoven for humanity. “Survival is Insufficient” is a sentiment I can get behind, especially when the music and theater play starkly against what the Prophet decides to keep from civilization.
If there is one thing I can find wrong with Station Eleven, it’s that the book is almost too perfect. There isn’t a senseless event in the entire piece, so you feel almost trapped in a linear video game- what you, the player/reader do or interpret is entirely irrelevant to how the book progresses. Each event is meticulously tied to the following in a causal web of events. For example, the Symphony takes in a refugee from the Prophet very early on, and of course the Prophet starts picking off Symphony members trying to get her back. It HAS to happen. You spend a lot of the book sort of waiting for it to happen and almost forget why they’re meeting in the last half.
It would be nice if life went on absolutely full of meaning like that, but the choices characters make almost have no impact on the outcome- it could never have gone any other way, based on the non-linear chapters that came before. It is a small nitpick on my part, that there is no surprise and limited agency, but at the same time the focus becomes drawn to how characters process these titanic events, instead of how they try to change them. You’re caught in an undertow- what do you do? That’s worth knowing for yourself.
There’s too much in this book to talk about without a cafe full of old souls, but suffice it to say Emily St. John Mandel has given us one for the ages. Station Eleven appeals to me as a not-quite millennial for its post-apocalyptic setting and often very geeky references, but it should also appeal to the poet in everybody. The themes of loss, of recovery, of longing are universal, and if you ever want to put serious work into your brooding this is the book to have on your shelf.