“Jeevan found 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. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.”
At a production of King Lear in Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor and film star Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu that only days before seemed like a distant European epidemic. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that trek between the far-flung settlements the post-flu world playing music and performing Shakespeare. When the Symphony arrives back in St. Deborah-by-the-Water after a two year absence, eagerly anticipating a reunion with two members of their group left behind there, they find the settlement irrevocably altered. A Prophet has taken over the town, driving many residents away, and bringing the rest under his sway. When the Prophet demands one of the Symphony’s young women to be his next wife, the Conductor and her people flee south into unknown territory. Fearing pursuit by the Prophet and his ilk, they make for the only southern settlement they have heard of, the almost-mythical Museum of Civilization, supposedly located in what was once the Severn City Airport.
Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines, beginning with Jeevan’s take on the night of Arthur Leander’s death, and the early hours of the epidemic. Thanks to an early warning from a friend who works at a local hospital, Jeevan is able to stock up on supplies and hole up in his brother Frank’s apartment as the fast-moving virus sweeps first the city, and then the continent. From there we go back in time to track the rise of Arthur Leander from small-town British Columbia boy to famed Hollywood actor, through three marriages and divorces, and the birth of his only child. Though Arthur dies in the last days of the old world, he is intimately connected to the primary players in what comes after. The non-linear timeline and complex array of characters will undoubtedly be off-putting for some, but for fans of this type of story-telling, Emily St. John Mandel has handled it masterfully. We end where we began, back on the final night of King Lear as the Georgia Flu is taking hold in Toronto. But this time we are inside Arthur Leander’s head as he gives his final performance, instead of seeing the events through Jeevan’s eyes.
Mandel does not linger on the terrible first days of the pandemic when survivors were fleeing the cities in search of somewhere safe, only to become the greatest danger to one another. In fact, Kirsten, our primary point-of-view character in the post-pandemic world, doesn’t even remember the first year she spent on the road with her brother, though she knows that it was a terrible time. Though there is violence and horror enough to make the apocalypse feel real, but it is done subtly, such as with the haunting presence of a sealed-up and quarantined airplane, leaving the survivors, and the reader, to imagine the horrors that must have transpired during the last hours within. For the most part, however, the focus is on what comes after, and how that reflects on what once was. The story takes place on a cusp, fifteen years after the pandemic, when those who are just coming into adulthood were either born after the Georgia Flu, or were so young when it happened that they have no memory of the world before, and know it only through the tales of the older survivors.
Pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who do remember the pre-apocalypse world. In her backpack, Kirsten carries two copies of Station Eleven, a comic book that tells the story of a damaged space station filled with human exiles from an alien-occupied Earth. A tattoo on her arm reads “survival is insufficient,” a Star Trek quote from a show she barely remembers, but which was a favourite of her best friend and fellow Symphony member, August. When they loot abandoned buildings in search of useful items, Kirsten likes to hunt for celebrity gossip magazines featuring Arthur Leander, while August longingly peruses old copies of TV Guide. All this sits in delicate juxtaposition to that initial production of King Lear, which is never far from the main thread of the story, and the many Shakespearean performances the Symphony has given since. Thus the Symphony interrogates the place of art in human history, and what role it can play after the civilization that gave birth to it has largely fallen, while the existence of the Prophet and his doomsday philosophy explore the extremes of how people might cope with understanding their survival when so many others perished. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.
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