Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

When the Georgia Flu sweeps around the world killing 99.6% of the population there were suddenly… a lot of people… to long for. The people missing from our lives is the hardest part. We mourn their loss, but we also have to mourn for the part of ourselves that is lost with each of their passings.

To survive is painful.

”Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm…”

I’ve met a few survivalists over the years. People who are obsessed with surviving the next great catastrophe. They have food, water, and weapons stockpiled. Some have even went so far as to build bunkers. Everyone of them has looked on me with pity when I admit that I might have a weeks worth of canned food in my house at any one time. They have all kinds of scenarios mapped out that will help insure their survival. They are more than willing to kill people to protect what is theirs.

They are living for the end of the world.

While they are buying bullets, bottled water, and MRGs I’m spending my money on fine wine, collectible books, and wonderful meals. I want civilization to continue to keep me in a bubble of protection so that I can continue to spend my money on culture for the rest of my days.

It so happens that the day before the world ends Arthur Leander, the famous movie actor, is playing a part in King Lear on the stage in Toronto. Dying is never a good thing, but when he drops from a heart attack on stage he has no idea how lucky he is. Kirsten is a child actress in the play and for a very short period of time she will think this is the worst day of her life. In the audience is Jeevan Chaudhary a paramedic trainee who leaps onto the stage and tries to the best of his abilities to save Arthur Leander’s life.

Jeevan leaves the theater thinking he has finally discovered what he wants to do with his life. His revelry is interrupted by a phone call from a friend who works in the hospital. The Georgian Flu is in the states and the medical staff have no treatment options. It is killing people faster than they can initiate medical countermeasures. Now most people who get a phone call like this would dither, would maybe even go into denial for a period of time hoping for a miraculous change in the world’s prognosis, but not Jeevan. He goes to the nearest supermarket and buys seven grocery carts filled with food.

The image of a man pushing seven carts through the streets of Toronto to his brother Frank’s apartment will stick in my mind forever.

Believing the worst… soon enough… saved his life.

Kirsten also survives, by luck, by the dint of her adaptability. We find her in the future as part of a travelling theater group. They protect each other and continue to perform the plays of the greatest playwright in the history of the world to what remains of human race.

Shakespeare survives.

And so do the first and second issues of a comic book series called Dr. Eleven because Arthur Leander’s ex-wife gave him copies of her artistic endeavor and he promptly pressed them into the hands of Kirsten mere hours before he breathed his last.

Arthur thought it would entertain his young friend for an hour or so. Little did he know these two comic books would crucially entertain her for decades.

The motto of the travelling dramatists is Survival is Insufficient. The blending of Shakespeare and a line now immortalized from Star Trek is exactly how I see the future. In fact, in my household it frequently happens now, the best of the past, blending with the best of the present, everyone must keep up. My kids, now young adults, roll their eyes every time I say “you probably need to google that”.

Of course when the world has disappeared and you can entertain children with stories of cool air or warm air just coming out of the vents and they look at you like your telling science-fiction stories; it is overwhelming to think about what has been lost.

So what would I miss?

One scoop of ice cream, not a bowl full, one scoop because when you only have one scoop you shave off these small bites and savor every one of them.

Movies, I can’t even imagine not having movies. For a while I could play the entire movies in my head, but we all know the images will begin to corrode over time and I’ll be left with highlights. Cary Grant running across a field chased by an airplane in North by Northwest. The death scene of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. The scene when the king stumbles out wounded but intent on fighting the final battle in The Thirteenth Warrior. Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers… in that dress… in Top Hat. Marisa Mell frolicking naked in a pile of money in Danger:Diabolik. Marlon Brando saying I coulda been a contender in On the Waterfront. Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing up on the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. John Wayne staring off into the distance over the back of his lathered horse thinking about what he will find in The Searchers. I could go on and on.

Hopefully everyone would remember different scenes so we could all remember more.

Taking a hot shower. A ritual of thinking that allows me to map out my day while luxuriating in a warm continuous spray.

For those who have their entire library on their Kindles, well you are out of luck, but for me the Luddite, I’d be contending with keeping bugs and moisture as far away from my books as possible. Still, books need a controlled environment to continue to be useful so it would be a world with fewer books everyday. Like the movies it may not be that long before many books would only exist in my head.

Trains, planes and automobiles. When the world collapses the world would become flat. Global trekking would be more along the lines of seeing what is going on in the next county. I would miss being able to head to Santa Fe, Chicago, or Savannah on a whim.

Until I’m there, sitting in all my odoriferous splendor under a tree reading the tattered remains of a copy of War and Peace, it is really hard to say what I would miss the most.

Of course the end of the world is never complete without a PROPHET. The troop of dramatists make a swing back through an area where a year earlier they had left two of their members. They had hoped to reconnect with them, but soon discover that they had to move on. A religious element has taken over the region led by a man who is selling the concept of “we are the light”, but really he is saying he is the sun, the moon, and the stars.

As a friendly gesture he offers the troop of actors his protection if they donate one of the lovely young ladies from their company to become one of his wives.

Why does it always take so long for someone to put a bullet, an arrow, or a knife through a guy like this?

The troop politely declines his offer, but soon discover after leaving that they have a twelve year old stowaway who is frantic to escape because she is destined to become The PROPHET’s next wife.

Of course THE PROPHET is dissed and it soon becomes a chase as Kristen and her friends try to outrun the ire of a madman.

Emily St. John Mandel blends the future and the past together seamlessly around the life of Arthur Leander and how he continues to live in the mind of his young friend Kirsten. Mandel takes this moment in time, the death of Leander on stage, and spreads her tentacles of information backwards and forwards until the reader is captivated by the memories of the past and the people living in this theatrical future. This is an impressive performance from a young writer and now we have to wait to see what form her next novel will assume.

***4.50 out of 5 stars***

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