By Emily St. John Mandel
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
Station Eleven is one of the most lyrical post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read. This might be due to the central theme of the book – Because survival is insufficient.
Twenty years after a flu pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population, a Traveling Symphony moves around the Michigan area to bring music and Shakespeare to the random ‘towns’ they encounter. Their mantra is painted on the side of the caravan and, while being a Star Trek reference, points to the very reason of their existence. Just surviving isn’t enough. Humans must do more and it is art that adds this ephemeral more. They solely present works of Shakespeare as his work survived plague epidemics in his lifetime as well as hundreds of years. There is a reason his work continues to resonate with people, even after a decimating flu.
The members of the Symphony see honor in what they are doing. They believe in the purpose of maintaining art in a destroyed world. Audiences have cried at their performances. They also see the pros and cons of a nomadic life. While it allows them to move along if a particular area or group of people is dangerous, it also inhibits them from feeling settled and safe.
The book begins before the existence of the Symphony, on the very night that patient zero arrives in Toronto. Arthur Leander, a famous actor, is onstage performing Leer when he has a heart attack. An EMT-in-training in the audience jumps up to save him but it is not to be. Afterward, while ruminating about his failure to save a life as well as his pleasure in having the ability to attempt to save a life, the EMT receives a call from a doctor friend warning him to leave town because of the flu. The EMT instead buys many carts full of groceries and drags them to his brother’s apartment to take care of him (his brother is wheelchair-bound.)
A young actress, Kirsten Raymonde, watches Arthur die. They were friends, in so much as a grown man can be a friend to a nine year-old girl. He was nice to her, even gave her copies of a comic book called Station Eleven. We meet her again in the Traveling Symphony. She still loves to act and every time they perform a play, she feels happy. She remembers Arthur, even twenty years later, and collects anything she can find on him – articles from magazines, pictures, etc. She has practically memorized the comic books about a group of people trapped on a spaceship that left Earth to save them.
The comic books are the work of Arthur’s first wife, an artistic outlet for herself. Over several decades she only made the two installments and paid to have a small run printed herself to give to friends and family. Arthur got two sets – one he gave to Kirsten, the other went to his son living in Israel with his mother, Arthur’s second wife. The comics detail tensions between the people who are in charge and those who live Undersea (most of the ship is flooded). The story mirrors the tensions of the post-apocalyptic world. There are those who try to take charge and change things, for better or worse, and there are always those who don’t like how that is being handled so the threat of revolt throbs.
The Symphony enters a town they had visited before, hoping to see two members who had stayed behind to give birth to their child. The town has changed. Their friends are no longer there. A prophet is in charge and his speech after their show is so unsettling the caravan packs up immediately to leave. Unfortunately, a stowaway is discovered some miles outside of the town. They keep the stowaway – a young girl who was going to be forced to be one of the prophet’s wives – but incur the wrath of the prophet. The Symphony is separated but they always make a plan. Everyone knows the next destination and heads there.
The next destination is the Museum of Civilization in an airport in Severn City.
Despite rumors that the prophet was once at Severn City, the Symphony presses on. Kirsten and her friend August travel on their own after the Symphony abandons them while they are fishing.
We get to learn about the airport at Severn City through the eyes of Clark, a university friend of Arthur’s who was traveling to Toronto for his funeral when his flight was diverted due to the flu. Twenty years later, there are a couple hundred people living at the airport. They have created tents for themselves inside various hallways for privacy. There are hunters for meat and a garden out back. Clark, thinking of his boyfriend who he can only assume died in the plague, curates a museum in the VIP lounge. He includes any item from the time before – cell phones, magazines, high-heeled shoes. He also maintains objects from people they have lost.
Clark uses the museum to teach the generation born after the pandemic about the world before, a world filled with air travel and television and cell phones and the internet.
“There had been countries, and borders. It was hard to explain.”
It sounds like magic to the children. New arrivals at the airport visit the museum for comfort or to donate items for display.
Throughout it all, we receive flashbacks to various points in Arthur’s life as an actor. These scenes provide an interesting commentary on the current role of art in our modern culture – what is appreciated, what is entertainment, etc. Arthur takes on the role of King Leer because he wants to get back to acting, despite his Hollywood success. He also decides on his final day that he wants to give it all up to move to Israel to be with his son. None of the fame or money or accolades is more important than knowing his son and ensuring his son knows him.
The threat of the prophet is an interesting antagonist in Station Eleven. His focus is purely religious. There is no room for art, only his individual view of the Bible and his interpretation of the meaning of the plague. His totalitarian rule is terrifying from a distance but clearly provides some relief for others.
“No one ever things they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.”
It raises an interesting question. Is the prophet worse than members of the Symphony, some of whom sport tattoos marking their kills? Depends on your point of view.
The way that the prophet ties into the intertwining characters is heartbreaking. Actually, the entire book is heartbreaking, even with the hope that rises at the end. There must be more than just existing and there must be things to remember.
Art as something worth preserving. Humanity is something worth preserving.
“First, we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”
Art helps us remember. Survival is insufficient.