Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review - Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by: Knopf
Publication Date: September 9th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

The famous actor Arthur Leander died on the last night of the old world. He wasn't one to suffer like those in the ER on that snowy night in Toronto hailing the arrival of the Georgian Flu which would kill all but one in two hundred people. Arthur had a fatal heart attack onstage during his star performance in King Lear. He'd never know of the horrors that came after or of how he was a tenuous link between some of the survivors. He was blissfully ignorant of what was to come. Twenty years later Kirsten Raymonde is touring around what used to be Michigan with the Traveling Symphony. When she was a young girl she was in a production of King Lear with the great Arthur Leander. Now she is in a troupe that specializes in bringing Shakespeare to the various outposts of remaining civilization. The troupe tried other playwrights, but people seem to want what was best of the old world, and Shakespeare and classical music remind them of that. While Kirsten herself was too young to remember what was lost from the world before or even the first year after the collapse, she scours abandoned houses for mentions of the great actor who was kind to her and who gave her her most prized possessions, two issues of the comic Station Eleven.

To understand how lives have played out in this new world, we must go back to the previous world. The world where Arthur's first wife was working on a comic, a world where his second wife was conspiciously present at a vapid dinner party celebrating Arthur's wedding anniversary to his first wife. The birth of Arthur's son while Arthur was already moving on to wife number three. Arthur's oldest friend betraying him while his dearest friend Clark will live long past Arthur's death. Each and every step and decision plays a role in a world that Arthur could never imagine and which he will never live to see. A world where an airport is a sanctuary, where survival is insufficient, and where Shakespeare brings people hope. A world that is at one and the same time embracing the past while trying to forge a future. A world that is dangerous to live in. A world where a prophet could spell destruction and ruin for people who only wish to live as they choose. Every moment could be these people's last, yet their survived the end of the world so they must try to rebuild it. To move forward, no matter the cost.

The irony isn't lost on me that a book that touts the credo from Star Trek that "survival is insufficient" is literally only about survival, and I really hope it wasn't lost on the author. There are many ways in which Station Eleven differs from your typical post-apocalyptic story, but the lofty ideals of the book might be the biggest difference. It wants so much to be different, to show that art is needed for sanity and survival, yet in the end all the Traveling Symphony's journey boils down to is surviving to the next day, the next outpost of civilization. If it wasn't for this dichotomy between the book's ideals and what the book actually represents I think it would have worked better. Station Eleven is an intriguing mood piece that embraces different ways of storytelling, from lists to dialogue to interviews, slipping through time and the character's timelines to create a vibrant world which in no way embraces the ideals of that Star Trek quote. It just feels so shoehorned in. Like Emily St. John Mandel heard that line of dialogue and jumped off from there, forgetting that the story and this motto should actually connect. And it's not that I don't fully embrace the idea that we need more to survive, it's just that Station Eleven, boiled down to it's essence, is only about surviving, nothing more. The book might have lofty ideals, but in the end it's a post-apocalyptic story, and those are all about survival.

Aside from this quibble I liked that the narrative wasn't your typical post-apocalyptic story. Post-apocalyptic stories tend to fall into two categories, one is that the apocalypse has just happened and our hero or heroine has to survive the initial destruction of the world to help rebuild it in some nebulous future. The second is that the apocalypse happened generations ago and our hero or heroine is living under a not ideal future regime, in other words, think The Hunger Games. Here we see the initial outbreak, but then we flash forward. Not to some "Hunger Games" world but to a more pioneer world, where the old world isn't long gone, but the new world hasn't fully been formed yet. It's not just about getting from day to day, but also trying to come to terms with the life they now have while still clinging to memories of the past. This, coupled with the flashbacks to the world before the flu, makes this a more intimate and personal story. It's not so much what happened to the world but what happened to these people. What happened to these characters who were connected to Arthur and how they survived in this new world. I can't help thinking about when asked what she most missed of the old world Kirsten won't answer, because it's too personal, and that, right there is why this book works. It's about these people.

Yet by spending so much time with these people and with their pasts we don't get any sense of what the future holds. Perhaps we could say that "survival is insufficient" should be the outlook going forward. All we see is them coping, surviving day to day, year to year, without any real forward momentum. The Traveling Symphony and how they are continually stuck touring one route, year in, year out, kind of symbolizes humanity at it's current stage. They have found a comfortable routine and now don't deviate from it. Yes, their might be risk venturing off the accustomed path, but humanity is stagnating. They aren't trying to fix the world, they're just living in it. My mind kept getting stuck on questions like why don't people try to do this that or the other. Why can't they have electricity? Get some smart people together, congregate in a large community, and FIGURE IT OUT! Twenty years and they have grown lazy. Sure, the author tries to romanticize the situation a bit with the Traveling Symphony harking back to days gone by when troupes traveled the countryside bringing culture to the masses and how Shakespeare himself lived in a plague ridden time. Yes, these are interesting comparisons, but also remember people in Shakespeare's time were trying to better themselves, to move forward, not live in the past and not move on. The only flicker of hope happens in the last few pages; while personally I could have done with the hope a little earlier.

And, of course, because this is a post-apocalyptic story the Big Bad has to be a Prophet who has multiple wives and runs off anyone who doesn't play by his rules. This is Stephen King 101 people. Think of The Stand. This Prophet is the main reason this book is problematic to me. Yes, I can look beyond the lack of hope, I can look beyond the disconnect between the message and what really happens, but I can't look beyond cliched characters that bog down the narrative. This character should have been spooky, terrifying, someone to run from. Instead he's meh. It's not just that his beliefs are bog standard for any post-apocalyptic Prophet, it's that he's predictable. The least you can do with going with a cliche is embrace it. Go all out! Make him over the top, someone so big for their britches that the megalomania carries the character on a wave of crazy through his predictability. Instead I just hoped for him to have as little time on the page as possible. As for his back story... well, if you didn't figure out who he was about two seconds into his first mysterious reveal, aka what he named his dog, there might not be any hope for you. Now I'm not going to spoil this reveal for you, because that is truly cruel, but the predictability of who he is and how he got this way, well, it quite literally smacked this book down a few stars. In fact it made the whole back end of the book slide from a pretty original story into predictable meh.

But in the end what did I expect from a story where the lynchpin is a dislikable actor? Yes, we could go on one of those endless debates about how there are antiheroes and antiheroines, and that characters don't need to be likable, yeah yeah, the Vanity Fair of it all; but I'll always come to the same conclusion, sure, they don't need to be likable, but they at least have to be fascinating. For some people, aka, the people who love to watch Entertainment Tonight and read People and think TMZ is the best news out there might take glee in having an actor, even a fictitious one, be the lynchpin to a story. Because they like celebrity gossip and dishing dirt. But for me celebrity in and of itself doesn't make a character interesting. In fact all Arthur's cheating and his storytelling about his home island made me just want to smack him for his pretensions. The more I learned about him the more I disliked him. I honestly can not see the draw to him. Telling us over and over what a great actor he is doesn't make it so. Making him your lynchpin in a story without fully investing the time to make him fascinating makes your narrative weak. Station Eleven started out so strong, with memorable visuals and interesting developments, like the comic book, but it kept falling off in quality till it ended with a whimper. Much like what the dog Luli would do if reprimanded.


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