Emily St. John Mandel wrote Station Eleven with a more literary slant to her post-apocalyptic world than the bulk of end-of-the-world narratives out there. You won’t find many action-filled scenes of crazed road-warriors or zombies or gun-toting survivalists chasing down the ‘good-guys’. There are no long explanations of how society collapsed. Instead, the story focuses on a handful of characters, before and after a plague that wipes out most of the world’s population.
The major players in the story are all connected, yet they connect through tenuous threads, and there is no big moment where their stories converge. Kirsten a child actor when the end came, now travels with a symphony and acting troop that performs Shakespeare. Shakespeare and his world — another impacted by plague – serves as metaphors. The troop and Kirsten attempt to avoid the followers of a mysterious but violent Prophet. Arthur is an actor and has a heart-attack on stage the night the plague strikes. His ex-wives and his son, are three more threads. There is Arthur’s friend Clark, and the paramedic who was in the theater that night. There is a comic book that ties several characters together, that impacts how they understand this new world.
Mandel uses the plague to explore philosophy more than the how the world would fall apart and that is the power of her story. The rumination by characters on art and music, the value of items no longer of use, whether the past should be let go or taught, and so much more, all layered over the threads that connect the characters, seen and unseen. Mandel weaves back and forth between the past and the present, and moves from individual story to story, building the larger story. The scenes after the plague are suitably creepy and tension filled. Mandel’s descriptions of both the world before and the world after are beautiful and frightening and vivid. and connect the reader with sympathetic, flawed, complex characters. The characters are fully realized and they are a cross-section of flawed humanity. The Prophet and those that follow him are frightening in a way that is far different that the typical gun-wielding, resource-hoarding types who populate many post-apocalyptic worlds.
The one flaw for me was that while threats to characters and tension remained high when I expected them to, there was a distance from that threat for me as a reader. I can’t fully explain that disconnect — the novel is engaging and fascinating, the characters, empathetic and well-drawn, and the language beautiful and thoughtful, but at more than one important moment I felt distant in a way that is analogous to the distance I feel when watching a filmed version of drama versus seeing it live.
There is hope in the new world, but there is an arbitrariness that undercuts that hope. There is a brutality to the new world but there is also a beauty to it as well. In the end, Station Eleven is a novel of the end of the world, but more importantly, it is about how that end impacts a few individuals. The focus never waivers from the personal and it is the power of Mandel’s narrative.