The kind of book you want to lend to people so you can have another person to talk to about it.
The kind of book that you recognize yourself in and wonder whether you should change the way you live.
The kind of book that you rotate in your mind like a gem, just to watch all the facets of the story and the story-telling and the imagery and the cultural connection points, sparkle as your attention focuses on them.
The kind of book that makes you cry without embarrassment.
And yet, I almost didn’t read it because the publisher’s summary reads:
“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.”
Having read the book, I barely recognize this description of it. Did they not read novel? Did they not understand it? Or did they think that bland and mushy would sell better?
“Eerie days of civilization’s collapse” – try brutal and overwhelming and grief-stricken and absolutely terrifying.
“a nomadic group of actors … risking everything for art and humanity” – this is so far off the point that it makes me want to scream. Nowhere in the world they live in is safe. They do what they do because it allows them to live in the relative safety of a group, enables them to create a “family” of musicians and actors, lets them practice the skills that make them who they are, takes them away from the violence they sometimes have to commit and, as it says on the side of one of their caravans: “Because Survival Is Not Sufficient.”
So what is “Station Eleven” really like?
It’s non-linear and lyrical. The structure of the story reminded me of songs where a chorus repeats but with one or two words changing each time so that the message in not only new and different but all the choruses act together like a chord or perhaps a riff, that sticks in the memory and makes you want to tap your feet. We circle back many times to the same scenes but from a different character’s point of view and with knowledge that was not available to us the last time we visited the scene. Meaning shifts, perceptions of characters alter, the scene itself takes on the quality of a memory that has mutated into a family story, more lore than fact, packed with more meaning than data.
At one points the narrator says: “A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films.” Much of “Station Eleven” is like that: collages of images that the reader forms into patterns, comic book pages where the colors and shapes and the relative size of the panels carry the story while the text is a decorative highlight.
“Station Eleven” braids strands of cultural references, from “Star Trek Voyager”, source of the “Because Survival Is Not Sufficient” quote, through TV Guides and gossip magazines, to Shakespeare’s plays, and live classical music, to create a bright new world full of hope, threat and sorrow.
“Station Eleven” lacquers theme over theme, achieving the rich patina of a Japanese pagoda: the performance of “King Lear” that starts the book – a man made mad by the loss of his world – plastic snow falling as the actor dies, echoed by the plastic snow in the snow globe in the airport that provokes a long chain of thought about all the people involved in getting it there. The mutation from “Because Survival Is Not Sufficient” to a musician’s decision to write a play “Because Shakespeare Is Not Sufficient”. The impact that the graphic novel, “Station Eleven” has on the woman who wrote it, the children who received the only two copies to survive – one an actress with throwing knives in her belt, the other a prophet with death in his heart. The power of theatre in the old world and the new to lift people above the everyday and unlock the emotions that necessity and expedience have bound and imprisoned.
“Station Eleven” uses the device of a world twenty years after a pandemic has killed almost everyone on the planet to show us the fragile beauty and improbable complexity of the world we live in every day.
Sometimes it evokes sorrow, with people focusing on what was lost – the last ice-cream they had, the last plane that actually flew them somewhere, the last phone call that they made, which they wasted on their boss yet never got to say goodbye to their family. The sorrow mirrors the scene in the graphic novel where Dr Eleven says “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” and the feeling of the people of Undersea who cannot bear their new world and just want to go home.
Sometimes, when looking at a night sky, free of light pollution and thick with stars, or when we watch a deer pause and then enter a silent forest and understand the “beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone”, we experience not loss but release from all the day to day things that were once so important and have now become objects in a museum, whose purpose and function seems less and less believable over time. Then we can look back with Miranda and say: “This life was never ours…we were only ever borrowing it.”
The accuracy of some parts of the book made me flinch. My job is so close to Clarke’s that it hit hard when a person he is interviewing helps him realize that he is sleep-walking through his life, doing something that he doesn’t hate but which leaves him numb and, beneath the numbness, perhaps a little angry. The feeling fits me like a well worn in shoe and makes me long to go barefoot.
“Station Eleven” got under my skin: the beauty of the language, the elegant strength of the woven storylines, the humanity of the characters, the transformation of our normal world into something magical and precious, the presentation of a future world that is one part loss, one part violence and two parts hope, the recognition that hell is not other people but the absence of the people we long for.
With a book like this, there is no substitute for the text. Read it. Tell everyone what you thought about it.
To hear some of the story, click on the SoundCloud link below.
If you’d like to know more about how Emily St. John Mandel wrote “Station Eleven” click on the link below but be warned, here be SPOILERS.