21 May 2020

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel


I feel like since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic people have been dividing themselves into two categories: those who want to spend their time focused on anything but, and those who want to lean into it hard. This can be determined by whether you rewatched Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion. I would group myself in another category... I am someone who wants to lean into it hard even though I absolutely should not. My boyfriend won't let me rewatch Contagion but I can sneakily read pandemic / apocalyptic literature.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is about a fictional pandemic that resembles an airborne swine fu. The window between onset and ~90% of the population being wiped out is very narrow. They call it the Georgian Flu and similar to the hell we live in now, the conversation surrounding it was more focused on how unlikely one was to get it. After the first chapter Mandel makes it clear that very few people survived.

After the outbreak and the death of most of mankind, the book splinters into two timelines. One timeline looks at a young Canadian actor named Arthur and follows him into late adulthood where he performs King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Arthur dies on stage shortly before the flu outbreak and during this production he intersects with our other protagonist - a young girl named Kristen who wants to be an actress. The second timeline is set ~15 years after the King Lear production and is narrated by a now-adult Kristen.

Kristen makes her away across the post-apocalyptic and deserted Ontario with the Travelling Symphony - a group who performs Shakespeare plays when they stop in small towns. The group consists of a bunch of other musicians and actors of varying ages. Some remember the world "before"  the Georgian flu and others have no memories of that time.


All three caravans of the Travelling Symphony are labelled as such, The Travelling Symphony lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient."


The Elgin Theatre where we have watched many movies for TIFF
I have mixed thoughts on how I felt about the book. A lot of people have been mentioning it on reading lists with everything going on. Ben actually got me the book for Christmas because I was interested in reading it before the HBO Max miniseries starring Mackenzie Davis - long before I ever thought there'd be a pandemic. I definitely had high expectations for it but felt generally underwhelmed. I do think I wasn't expecting the almost science-fiction landscape that acts as the setting for the book, and honestly that kind of thing isn't typically for me.

I am mostly confused because while I felt I enjoyed the chapters devoted to Arthur - who dies the night before the pandemic explodes, I bought this book with the intention of reading about society after a massive population loss. Again, the chapters that were focused post-pandemic felt too science fictiony and I didn't like Kristen as a protagonist.

The stuff I really enjoyed was post-pandemic but from a secondary character named Clark - a life-long friend of Arthur's who gets stuck at an airport when the flu hits. He had all of his memories of what life was like beforehand, and watching him grapple with how things will never be "normal" again is what I truly enjoyed.


It was possible to comprehend the scope of the outbreak, but it wasn't possible to comprehend what it meant. Clark stood by the terminal's glass wall in the Mexican restaurant, watching the stillness of the Air Gradia jet in the far distance, and he realized later that if he didn't understand at that moment why it was out there alone, it was only because he didn't want to know."


I probably say once a day "when will things be normal again," so I definitely felt an eerie connection when reading Clark's chapters. But too little of the writing is focused on Clark for me to have truly loved the book.

Emily St John Mandel
I do wish that this book maybe focused a little more on the memory of "life before," or that characters grappled more with their new reality. There is a chilling moment where someone mentions "the more you remember, the more you've lost," but that was really it.

I wouldn't ever tell someone not to read this, but personally I wanted a lot more. I'm sure starting production isn't even a blip of concern for HBO Max right now. I'll certainly look forward to seeing what they do with the miniseries, but I probably won't think of this book again. Onto World War Z??? 

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