Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

‘It was the end of the world as they knew it! Jeevan had had that song stuck in his head for several days now’

If I wasn’t won over already, an R.E.M. reference certainly did it. The song is oddly perfect for sections of this pre-/mid-/post-apocalyptic novel. In Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel does not indulge too heavily in the fear, hysteria and pain that accompanies the end of the world and its aftermath. Instead, many of her characters almost embrace the brave new world, a fresh start – and adjust. They all look for a way to make their mark and to mean something, but none sink into despair or hopelessness. They find new ways to live, even while holding onto the past.

We flit between the lives of several characters: Jeevan - the paparazzo turned paramedic, Kirsten - the child actress turned travelling performer, Miranda - the authoress of the titular comic book and first wife of Arthur Leander; Clark - Arthur’s close friend turned almost-curator of the Museum of Civilisation and Arthur himself - actor turned deceased. Many of them are survivors of the flu which wiped out 99.9% of humanity, and those that aren’t live on through their work and the impact it had on these individuals. There are threads that connect them all – even the most fleeting encounters can survive the end of the world. 

Mandel sets many of the post apocalypse scenes twenty years later to uncover what it is that truly lasts – and it’s not always what you’d expect. For example, Kirsten can’t remember much about the pre-collapse world, not even her mother’s face, but ‘she did remember Arthur Leander, and after that first sighting she went through every magazine she could find in search of him. She collected fragments, stored in a Ziploc in her backpack’. She cherishes a paperweight randomly given to her on the day he died, and of course the comics that also came from his hands. The memory and mementos of a celebrity, one she met only very briefly and hardly exchanged words with, is what she has brought with her through the end of the world.
Nathan Burton was asked to design the comic, written by Miranda and read by Kirsten, which underlies the book's themes
It is the Arts, primarily, which tie these individuals together, allowing them to impact each other beyond the limits of their lifespan and their encounters. Whether it is the performance of Shakespeare (Kirsten is part of the Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour their Shakespeare performances through settlements. We first meet her as a child actress involved in Arthur Leander’s final performance of King Lear) or the careful composition of a comic book never intended for publication, and of which only ten copies exist, the Arts are what remains and what endure.  Kirsten and her company live by the motto that ‘survival is insufficient’ (a Star Trek reference). Survival is not enough. Art gives meaning. Art crosses space and time. It breaches the final frontier. The book demonstrates this through its intertextuality – referencing cultural markers such as Star Trek, R.E.M and Shakespeare. Arthur’s surname may also have been inspired by a Greek mythical figure who dies trying to reach his lover and Jeevan’s name apparently means ‘bringer of life’ in Hindi (he becomes a paramedic).

‘Not quite a room, Jeevan thought now, looking around the stage. It was too transitory, all those doorways and dark spaces between wings, the missing ceiling. It was more like a terminal, he thought, a train station or an airport, everyone passing quickly through.’

These are Jeevan’s reflections shortly after Arthur Leander’s death on-stage at the beginning of the novel, before the Georgia Flu has really taken hold. They extend to the world that exists years later, that Kirsten wanders through and the terminal that Clark finds himself watching over. In their world everyone is just passing through, on a journey to somewhere – searching for scraps of meaning and memory (‘there was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could…’).
Emily St John Mandel
Station Eleven is a delicate tapestry of meaning - a careful examination of the world around us and the nature of human existence. It is written beautifully, with fluid long sentences and moments of poignant reflection and interconnection.

The Symphony are a fascinating microcosm of society - a ‘collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments’ who ‘lived  together, travelled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour’ – a medley of dysfunctional human relationships – ‘but what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with’. Despite their tensions, this group come to realise they would do anything for each other – if one is lost, they will not stop until they find them. It is their art and shared passion which unites them and transcends their differences. So when one quotes Sartre in the heat of their differences (that ‘hell is other people’) they come to reject it. In fact, Kirsten surmises, ‘Hell is the absence of the people you long for’.

Characters like Clark and Jeevan offer some of the best insights into the pre-apocalyptic world and the way its ending reveals some rarely acknowledged truths. Clark, at one point, bemoans modern society – recognising the people around him as ‘high functioning sleepwalkers’ (a brilliant term) - before he realises that he is just like the ‘iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier’, that he is just as ‘minimally present in this world’ as they are.

Would it be such a bad thing to start over? To try existence again in a different way? To feel able to be fully present? These are very relevant questions for the digital age.

Jeevan, on the other hand, has a moment where he is awestruck when he considers the sheer volume of what humans achieved in that pre-apocalypse world – and how integral they really were even when things seemed increasingly digitalised and mechanised.

He finds himself thinking about ‘how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt’. There were always people behind the machines, connected in changing but still human ways. Similarl - while witnessing an airplane taking off after being grounded so long - a post-apocalypse Clark is awestruck by the improbability of flight.

There are many of these little, subtle revelations scattered throughout the novel. Unlike many post-apocalypse writers, Mandel doesn’t overlook the importance of the little things – the very simple, taken for granted things that people might miss and think about differently in their absence or scarcity. This is one of the greatest traits of Station Eleven.

Of course, Jeevan and co also realise that human existence was never everything. He feels himself ‘disappearing into the landscape… a small, insignificant thing... He had never felt so alive or so sad’. This brought to mind the Existentialism/Absurdism of Camus and his contemporaries – the liberation that can be found in the realisation of one’s own insignificance. It is something both liberating and traumatising. Even after everything and everyone ‘lost in the collapse’ there is ‘still such beauty’ - the world doesn’t end. That is crucial. Life begins again anew with every change.

In truth it’s a very hard book to describe and review – I can say that it’s brilliant and I know that because I feel impacted by its art in the same way as many of its characters. I love Mandel’s style, it’s easy to read and very hard to stop reading, while still being deeply thought-provoking and affecting in a subtle, carefully constructed way. The thought and care in each word is so evident by the time you reach the end. The idea of the Symphony – and the connections between each character’s story – made me think of Cloud Atlas and the way a piece of art can inspire and draw together so many different people. Then there’s a slight trace of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – truly dystopian, very dark and bleak – a journey through the wasteland of humanity. There’s a vaguely similar kind of threat in the sinister figure of the Prophet, and the way in which the Symphony are also on a journey through a kind of wasteland of humanity, albeit with a radically different atmosphere. Ultimately, Station Eleven is an experience of its own - in and of itself - and thoroughly deserves its National Book Award nomination and the acclaim it’s been getting. Read it and then read it again.

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