Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

I have a confession: I hate post-apocalyptic fiction. I've spoken on this before, specifically with regards to zombies, because it's a genre without much room to move--you survive as long as you can, but at the end of the novel you're either going to die or...die. There's no "suddenly everything was fixed" (and if there is, it's dreadful). There's just "everyone dies," which I already knew.

Perhaps my hatred comes from the sheer number of poorly-done books I've read. I still cannot figure out why everyone likes The Road. Anything with zombies is a no-go. Dystopian post-apocalyptics are just as much a drag (here's looking at you, Divergent). In spite of all of this, I can't seem to stay away. Some part of me must see promise in this type of fiction, because I always get sucked back in, and it's always a disappointment.

Until today. I can finally, with confidence and joy, announce that I have found a post-apocalyptic novel that I loved. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is what I have been waiting for my whole life.

The Georgia Flu is a perfect killer, and it destroys everyone. Billions of people die within days of contracting the disease, and soon almost no one is left. Kirsten survives, and twenty years after the pandemic strikes, she's touring the tiny communities surrounding Lake Michigan as part of a troupe called the Traveling Symphony; they play classical music and perform Shakespeare, trying to keep the old culture alive.

This book is the story of Kirsten, yes, but it's also the story of Arthur Leander, an actor who dies in the first few pages. Kirsten is on stage when a heart attack kills him; the narrative switches between Kirsten of the present and Arthur of the past, though frequently he is focalized through viewpoints of people in his life.

It's difficult to describe Station Eleven's contents, because it's not driven by plot. Mandel's main concern isn't even world, like some post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels. It is 100% about the characters, about the endless criss-crossing of their lives in myriad, unforeseen ways--there's a paramedic who jumps on stage to help Arthur; another thread follows one of his oldest friends; some of his ex-wives even merit digressions. Because they are the focus, they are also the best part of the book. Some novels try really diligently to develop their characters through really painful devices that "secretly" teach us something about their characters, and I have always hated that. Thankfully, this is not one of those.

It's a quietly beautiful piece of writing. I loved the narrative structure, because I think in this particular subgenre, it's easy to get world-building fatigue. There are stories that focus too much on what happened to the world and how it's different; there are stories that don't tell us enough (The Road, I'm looking at you angrily). One thing that the author pulls off beautifully is the meditative passages on the new world, remembering the things that mattered so much that are so useless now. It's an examination of first-world privilege, sure, but it never feels didactic or preachy--just true.

Jumping freely between characters and time periods came as a relief to me: it gave me an escape from the empty, post-flu world, which, to be honest, frightened me a little bit. I can freely admit that I am very comfortable in the world I live in, where I don't have to hunt and gather my food or worry about being pillaged, and to contemplate for too long a world where that is the only way to survive makes me uncomfortable.

The ending is good, too--it's hard to end a story about the end of the world, but Mandel pulls it off with aplomb. Character arcs are tied together in a very satisfying manner, and there's just enough hope to make the book feel worth reading. I was very nervous to finish, but my fears were for naught.

One of the great things about Station Eleven is that it will appeal both to fans of the genre and to people (like me) who aren't crazy about the genre and its conventions. Without a doubt, it's one of the best books I've read this year, and I'm so glad I had the pleasure of doing so.

My rating: 5/5
Station Eleven on Goodreads
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