There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. The Traveling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they'd been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.
Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, traveling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine. They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again. This territory was for the most part tranquil now. They encountered other travelers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns. The Symphony performed music – classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs – and Shakespeare. They'd performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings. (pp. 37-38)
Literature often conforms to and reflects contemporary societal concerns. A case can be made that with uncertainty about the long-term sustainability of environmental and socio-political structures, stories of sudden, catastrophic collapse and struggles for survival in a changed climate have become more popular than ever before. Several 2014 releases that I've already reviewed have touched upon some of these concerns, yet this does not mean that there is not room for yet another take on collapse, another exploration of how humanity might reorder and reinterpret itself after its civilizations fold under the weight of a sudden calamity.
Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 National Book Award-nominated novel Station Eleven is one of those works that manages to maintain key features that are endemic to post-apocalyptic literature while introducing elements that allow for a greater consideration of those cultural artifacts that we reject or cherish according to the pressures of the times. At first glance, it is a bog standard tale of a group of survivors twenty years after a deadly super flu, the Georgia Flu, has wiped out over 90% of the human population in a matter of months. With its peripatetic, motley crew of actors and musicians, the Traveling Symphony seems to be just one more wandering band of folk, maybe kin to McCarthy's Father and Son in The Road or even the family groups found in Mandel's The Millions colleague Eden Lepucki's California. But there is something different about Mandel's tale, something that took me nearly two-thirds of the novel to realize just what it might be, that makes it better than the latter and close at times to the quality of the former.
The narrative structure certainly doesn't make for an easy introduction into the tale. Seen primarily through the eyes of a former child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, the tale moves back and forth from the pivotal night just before the Georgia Flu's explosion into pandemic status, when a renowned actor, Arthur Leander, dies on-stage of a heart attack while performing King Lear. As the young Kirsten watches horrified, a former paparazzi turned EMT, Jeevan, futilely tries to revive Arthur. From here, these unlikely personal connections spawn a set of interactions that span two decades and the destruction of most global civilization. Mandel switches frequently back and forth from the near-future "past" of Arthur's final days to the mid-21st century "present" of airport towns and the rise of a mysterious prophet who bounds all who enter his demesne to stay at pain of execution.
At first, the connections Mandel establishes between the flashbacks and "current" events are tenuous, as there is a real sense that there is little narrative "glue" that binds these seemingly disparate events together. If it weren't for the skill that she has in developing character and voice (several chapters or interludes utilize interview transcripts and quasi-historical clippings to summarize past events, while other passages have a more intimate feel about them, particularly the ones dealing with young Kirsten and with Arthur's family), there wouldn't be enough narrative tension to sustain the reader's attention for long.
Yet a little beyond the halfway point of the novel, these seemingly separate events begin to converge in some interesting ways. Not only does the main plot, that of the Traveling Symphony dealing with this mad prophet, come into clearer focus, but several themes that Mandel introduced in these flashback sequences, particularly that of how certain cultural artifacts are more enduring than others, comes into play. Of particular interest is how Shakespeare's plays, especially King Lear, come into play near the end. It is not a trite, shallow exploration of the playwright's themes, but also of certain connections between the times in which he composed those plays and the times in which Kirsten and her companions live and operate.
There is another layer to this as well. From the Star Trek: Voyager quote of "Because survival is insufficient" to the eponymous fictitious Station Eleven, there are certain pop cultural memes or touchstones that also survive the chasm of the Collapse. How Kirsten and another important character deal with these shared preserved cultural elements is vital to understanding not just the mysteries of the flashbacks Kirsten has, but also in grasping just how the final scenes of the novel unfold. Granted, these connections are not always integrated fluidly into the narrative, but for the most part Mandel manages to present them without an excess sense of treacly "deeper understanding" that often plague novels of discovery in the midst of calamity.
On the whole, Station Eleven is a fairly well-constructed post-apocalyptic novel that manages to be just original enough to surprise the reader on occasion. While the situations and some of the outcomes are going to be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic literature, the characters and their motivations are sufficiently developed enough that there is little sense of this novel being a derivative work. The prose for the most part is excellent and outside of the initial difficulty in following the numerous flashback sequences during the first half of the story, the narrative on the whole flows well toward a fitting conclusion. Station Eleven is not my favorite of the National Book Award finalists for Fiction, but it certainly is a story that is worth most readers' times.