'Station Eleven': All the world’s a stage (for the plague)
January 11, 2015 12:00 AM
By Melissa M. Firman
It is a rare thing when a novel appears on nearly all the “Best of” 2014 year-end lists during the same year when its masterfully crafted plot is synchronized with one of the biggest news stories dominating the headlines.
By Emily St. John Mandel Knopf ($24.95)
Welcome to “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel’s best-seller in which 99 percent of the population has been wiped out within hours or — for the truly unlucky — days. The culprit is the mysterious Georgia Flu, unknowingly brought to the United States via virus-carrying airline passengers from Russia. (“But everyone knows what happened. The new strain of swine flu and then the flights out of Moscow, those planes full of patient zeros ….”)
Enough similarities abound with the fictitious Georgia Flu and the real-life Ebola virus to pique the interest of any wannabe conspiracy theorist. Any level-headed reader will raise an eyebrow and wonder what if … could this?
Ms. Mandel’s writing is precise and seemingly accurate as she describes everyday life on the cusp of a pandemic — or, what one would imagine life to be like in such an environment. After all, we’ve had enough hyped-up, media-frenzied scares of our own (see: Y2K, avian flu, three inches of snow in Pittsburgh) that a pandemic from a flu virus seems very well within our scope of reality.
In “Station Eleven,” people communicate primarily via text messages, play baseball under bright lights, fly commercial airlines, and try to stock up on enough toilet paper and groceries just before a snowstorm arrives. If this is an apocalyptic society, then the apocalypse is here, and it is us. These are people we can understand and relate to. It is chillingly effective, and it works exceptionally well.
One wintry evening in Toronto, legendary actor Arthur Leander collapses onstage while performing “King Lear.” A man in the audience rushes to perform CPR while Kirsten, an 8-year-old child actress in the scene, watches in horror as Arthur dies. It is a pivotal moment that comes in the earliest pages of “Station Eleven.”
For those onstage — including Kirsten, the main character of the novel — Arthur’s death signifies the beginning of a new way of life. She and the other actors just don’t know it yet, just as they don’t know how and why their lives are connected by more than they realize.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten’s very existence is dependent on the great works and culture of centuries past. As one of the one percent who survived the pandemic, Kirsten is part of a Shakespearean acting troupe known as the Traveling Symphony. It wouldn’t seem that art would matter in such desperate and bleak times, but as Kirsten remembers the way things used to be, making sure people remember its power to unite and uplift becomes even more important.
“Sometimes the Traveling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.”
“Station Eleven” succeeds on the quiet strength of Ms. Mandel’s writing, heralded by book lovers since her 2009 debut, “Last Night in Montreal,” which made me a fan of this Canadian-born author.
A finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, “Station Eleven” celebrates art’s endurance through the best and worst of times and its ability to connect us in monumental and coincidental ways. What seems at first glance to be yet another dystopian, futuristic story — the likes of which rarely hold much appeal for this reviewer — is surprisingly different. This one is art, and it is enduring.
Melissa M. Firman lives in Cranberry and writes about books at www.melissafirman.com.
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