Friday, December 30, 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

 Tried to keep spoilers to a minimum - but some aspects from the start of the novel and some of the broader scenes and themes are discussed. 

"Station Eleven" may be the least dystopian dystopian novel you'll ever read. Switching between the collapse - caused by the "Georgia flu" which quickly and without ceremony wipes out 99% of the population in 24 hours - and twenty years afterwards, when a sort of new normality has evolved, the novel owes more to contemporary fantasias such as A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" or Douglas Coupland's "Girlfriend in a Coma" than "The Road" for instance.

The book begins in the place of connection - with a performance of King Lear taking place in Toronto, with the lead actor, a fading Hollywood star revisiting the boards in his favourite city. This will be Arthur Leander's last performance. He will literally die on stage, despite the best efforts of a paparazzi turned medic in the front row. It turns out Leander's will be the last natural death before the tsunami of the Georgia flu envelopes the city. Like all "collapse" novels, there's a certain fun to be had in the slow, then fast breakdown of the normal norms. From a panicked phone call from an emergency ward to all phones being dead takes a matter of days. The medic, Jeevan, holes up with his disabled brother and enough tinned food and water to survive the first few weeks of the catastrophe. The catastrophe itself is never explained (another common trope) though the sense of it being a "visitation" is taken up by at least one of the characters, a shadowy Preacher, whose "cult" threatens what stability has been built up in the desolate future.

The future has hope of different sorts. The devastated North American population has decamped into small settlements away from the rotting cities, and returned to a settlers life, of hunting and farming, small groups of people able to fend for themselves. The sense that there was much darkness and terror - the on the road fear that permeates every page of  "The Road"  - is there, but it is underplayed. St. John Mandel has a different schematic in mind. There is the Travelling Symphony, a ragbag of Shakespearean players and musicians which moves from settlement to settlement like the circus of times past. It provides a home and a cover for its participants, one of whom, Kirstin, was a little girl in that King Lear performance twenty years earlier.

More similar to Hollywood disaster movies than other catastrophe fiction, Station Eleven revolves around a small group of characters who are wittingly or unwittingly connected to Leander: a comic book "Station Eleven" written by his ex-wife Miranda; his best and oldest friend Clark; the little girl; his second wife Elizabeth and her traumatised son Tyler....

The novelist slips in and out of the pre-collapse era and the "present" of the novel with abandon. In many ways the Travelling Symphony allows her to play with a picaresque approach - no surprise, that Patrick deWitt, of "The Sisters Brothers" eulogises about it on the cover - but at the same time the scenes which are the most vivid are the ones about Leander and his life before the collapse. Coming from a small island off the Canadian coast, struggling in the big city of Toronto before becoming an international, worldwide star, he's an unlikely hero - and indeed he's dead before the future has even began. The reason it reminds me of the A.M. Homes novels is this sense of tenuous connection - of a group of people whose lives are suddenly affected by an experience.

In many ways its a chaotic novel that shouldn't really work: the strands pulling it together, the oddly elusive Station Eleven comic (whose author we hardly get to know or understand), the idea of the Travelling Symphony, the sinister cult, the settlement of people at the abandoned airport, that performance of "King Lear", all of these elements are thrown into a mix, like a particularly unappetising stew, but somehow St. John Mandel manages to pull them all together. There's a sheer likeability about the prose - like fellow Canadian Coupland - but also a sense that she's not taking any of this too seriously, but merely wanting to take us on a ride. In some ways its a bit of a hall of mirrors. The airport destination is only mysterious when we don't know about it - when we are told the backstory it becomes a benign haven; whilst the cult seem to be there to provide a little bit of tension, an antidote to the hopefulness of the Travelling Symphony. Like David Mitchell in "Cloud Atlas" she is wanting to give us a sense of hope and connectivity - of a world that might have lapsed to a pre-modern state - but also gives us hope. "Station Eleven" is a bit of a conundrum: its the novel's title and a piece of ephemera that somehow connects the individual characters - yet it doesn't have quite the overarching power of Will Self's "Book of Dave" in the novel of the same name. Described in some detail, its a graphic novel about a society that has escaped from the earth on "Station Eleven" - a metaphor for the oncoming collapse, perhaps, but never really explored as more than that. In the end I had to conclude it was just the author having a little bit of fun - if you're not a graphic novelist, why not write one in the context of your fiction?

There is little here about "how" people survive - little of the jeopardy of those early days and years - and also an unwillingness to really think through that only after twenty years are we beginning to see the possibility of electricity being restored again. It is the author's fourth novel, and the dystopian trope proves a useful one for her inventiveness. It's highly readable, a great word of mouth success, and with a lightness of touch that makes me want to read more of her; if it lacks a greater profundity, then perhaps that's more our expectations with any novel that is post-catastrophe, rather than any great failing of it in and of itself.

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