Station Eleven begins with an end. King Lear misses his line once, twice — “the wren goes to’t” — then falls to the ground, clutching at his heart, decidedly off-script. Fake snow falls on a stage, washed in blueish light. A former paparazzo (and now aspiring paramedic) named Jeevan Choudhary rushes from the audience to help the fallen actor, but it’s too late. Arthur Leander — a famous Hollywood thespian, now entering the Shakespearean phase of his career — is dead. Just as Leander falls, an even bigger calamity hits: an influenza that wipes out 99 percent of the global population. At least Leander won’t be lonely in the afterlife.
But the great beyond that author Emily St. John Mandel is most interested in is the one on earth. Twenty years after the Georgia Flu has struck, Kirsten Raymonde — who was an 8-year-old child actor in the production where Leander died — is now grown up. She roams the upper midwest with the Traveling Symphony, a caravan of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare plays for the surviving settlements. Their motto is “survival is insufficient.” As Raymonde notes, despite having Shakespeare’s entire repertoire at her disposal, this is her favorite line of dialogue. It comes from Star Trek: Voyager, and she loves it so much she has it tattooed.
Mandel skips over most of the sentimental parts of post-apocalypse, including the rock-bottom despair. As Jeevan remarks: we’ve seen this before. We know how apocalypses work. What’s left is what doesn’t make it into action movies: day-to-day survival, and more than that, day-to-day happiness. Not the bright and blooming kind, but the fragile beauty of little moments: finding a sundress in an abandoned house, a treasured comic book, Shakespeare. Sometimes it’s a little too quaint — while there is passing mention of the violent mayhem of the early years, by the time we meet the Symphony the world is almost completed cured of its brutal Walking Dead phase. The biggest squabbles in the Symphony are the petty arguments between the flutes and violins.
The most dangerous among the survivors are not the old crowd — the ones who wistfully remember the old world, and their loved ones — but the young. Without a memory of the civilization that preceded them, the youth are vulnerable to extremism. Evangelical fervor whips a handful of young men — who were mere children, if that, when the flu hit — into dangerous mercenaries compelled by the word of God. They’re led by the Prophet, a handsome young fanatic around Kirsten’s age, who wanders the same path as the Symphony, looking for underage wives.
Just as this mystery picks up, Mandel sends us back in time, Pre-Flu. We meet Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, a reclusive artist who spends most of her waking hours crafting a science-fiction comic book about a space ship called Station Eleven. Post-Flu, it’s one of Kirsten’s most prized possessions. While not quite a story-within-a-story, it bears resemblance to David Mitchell’s postmodern epic Cloud Atlas, where traces of the past, whether they’re diaries from the 1700s, manuscripts from the 70s, or interview transcripts from a dystopic future, crop up in each new narrative act. While Cloud Atlas has a structure like a Russian nesting doll, Mandel’s novel is like stained glass. She shows you the whole abstract shape of it from the beginning, then colors it in piece by piece until it becomes something else entirely. Characters from Arthur’s past — his first wife, his second wife, his child, his best friend — reappear in the new world, though some identities are suspensefully withheld until just the right moment. Nothing is coincidental, and almost no threads are left dangling. It’s not a mystery novel, but considering Mandel’s past as a crime thriller writer, it’s no surprise that she borrows from that genre, mostly to great effect.
Her prose is clean and precise, never quite reaching urgency, which means we never feel the madness these characters must surely feel on occasion. But apocalypse, in many ways, is what Station Eleven is least interested in. It is most interested in the past, and how refracted through the bleak prism of the future, it can look oh-so-romantic. The nostalgic current is strong, but effectively so. Mandel wistfully invests the everyday objects we take for granted — iPhones, new books, airplanes — with a kind of magic, not because they make things convenient, but because they can connect us to other people (though the novel suggests the opposite of this too — how technology can become substitutes for connection, avatars in lieu of intimacy). Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, whose vision of the post-apocalypse is bleak, haunting, and emotionally devastating, Mandel’s future often feels less like the world has ended, and more like it’s simply malfunctioned, in spectacular fashion. Life goes on — it’s just less convenient. There is still love, birth, music, theater. Instead of biblical collisions of good and evil — à la The Stand — Mandel opts for quiet moments: enough to create a symphony.
Station Eleven imagines a new frontier, medieval and modern all at once, where you fish for food in the morning, speak Elizabethan language in the evening, and yearn for Facebook by night. This is the world post-bedlam. It imagines, optimistically, that people are mostly good-hearted. And while the more cynically-inclined (myself included) might long for a bit more violence — there are plenty of those kinds of post-apocalyptic novels to satisfy that hunger. There’s nothing quite like Station Eleven.