The scene: King Lear in a pool of blue light, watches a hallucination of his three daughters, stumbles.
Or: An actor has a heart attack on stage, efforts by a trainee paramedic to save him are unsuccessful, a little girl cries and is pacified by the gift of a glass paperweight.
Or: This is the last night of normality before the apocalypse, the last time people will flock to watch their favourite celebrity perform Shakespeare under electric spotlights. In a matter of weeks 99.9% of the world’s population will have died in a flu pandemic.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a compelling exploration of what comes after the end of the world as we know it and how we might remember all that was lost. The elements are familiar – an unanticipated disaster threatening all life, a society turned upside down and rife with dangers, a small connected cast surviving the disaster to create a new life in an unknown future. Yet where an action film would focus on the disaster and its immediate aftermath, leaving us with a small group of survivors looking towards the hope of a new day, Mandel does something more interesting. She explores what that day would look like – and the weeks, and the years. Station Eleven takes us forwards and backwards in time, from decades before the apocalypse to the Year 20 of the new world.
The story interweaves the narratives of several characters, all connected in some way by Hollywood actor Arthur Leander: his ex-wife Miranda, the mysterious author of the Station Eleven comics; his ex-wife Elizabeth and son Tyler, who find meaning in the end of the world; his old friend Clark, who curates a vision of the past; trainee paramedic Jeevan, who tried so hard to save his life; and Kirsten Raymonde – eight years old when the story begins – who grows up to perform Shakespeare in the touring Travelling Symphony. Mandel’s first novels were mysteries, and she shows a deft ability to place clues and build intrigue as the characters work out the connections between their lives. Why is the prophet’s dog named Luli? How did Kirsten come to have the paperweight? Why are the scenes of Station Eleven so poignantly familiar to Clark? Questions are satisfyingly resolved by the end by a series of coincidences that feel nonetheless plausible within Mandel’s creation.
It is a story about memory and about loss, a story about trying to find meaning in what is left behind. In what once served as an airport, Clark creates a Museum of Civilization, where smartphones and stilettoes lie untouched, where in the future children will learn how electricity once worked and what the internet was. A moment describing electric light for an instant distances us from the present, caught in the wonder of the idea: ‘walk into a room, flip a switch and the room floods with light’. We imagine ourselves living in these final days, experiencing unknowingly the final month when you could call someone and speak to them across a globe. Kirsten cannot remember her mother’s face or what happened to her in Year One, but collects celebrity magazines from abandoned houses and saves clippings, building a record of the actor she once saw die on stage. Yet flashbacks and shifts in perspective show her collection to be half-truths at best – a paparazzi’s camera on Arthur and Miranda ‘washed her out so mercifully that in the photo version of that moment the bruise was erased’. The characters look backwards, or to the sky: ‘If I ever saw an airplane, that meant that somewhere planes still took off.’
Station Eleven is a book founded upon the hopeful premise that ‘People want what was best about the world’. Art will always matter. On her left forearm, Kirsten bears the words ‘Survival is insufficient’ – a quotation from Star Trek and a mantra of sorts for the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel between settlements. In remote places and memories of towns, they perform music and Shakespeare to survivors and their children: ‘And now in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king’. There are dangers and unforeseen hazards in this new life but there is hope and more than hope – people find happiness in art and in one another, build relationships and expand their horizons beyond their curtailment. King Lear will be played again, in this post-apocalyptic age.
It’s a beautiful book and a satisfying read. Yet if there were such a thing as cosy apocalyptic fiction, this might be it. The flu pandemic is devastating, yet the blame for it is laid at nobody’s door – a mere accident, impossible to have foreseen or to have averted. In Year Twenty, although there has been suffering, the survivors have rebuilt their lives, have food and shelter and seem relatively unscathed by the horrors they have endured. They have created art, started families and perhaps at the end begin to look to the future. They have adjusted to a new normality. If this feels cosy, it is that in 2017 we are able to imagine much worse futures. As a rise in right wing extremism sends ripples through the globe, as protestors are shot and racists given free reign, as refugees are fired upon and left to drown in dangerous waters, it is a relief to imagine that perhaps we get a second chance after it all, that perhaps it won’t be so bad. And if I loved it, perhaps that is because hope, even for an imperfect future, is a valuable currency.
Ceris Aston interned for the European magazine Cafebabel, writing on lifestyle, society, culture and idioms in a multilingual office. She later joined the books team at The Skinny magazine and now has a part time role in a feminist policy organisation.