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Monday, February 16, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I picked up Station Eleven because the sample was rife with Shakespeare quotes and references, and I'm a sucker for those. (See Tree/House if you don't believe me.) After the sample, the relation to Shakespeare is mainly the fact that he lived in a plague-ridden world, like the one in this novel. By the time I got to the sentence explaining that everyone at the theatre would be dead in three weeks, I was hooked on the great writing and a need to know how it would play out.

The novel is constructed around a series of coincidences that center around the actor who dies of a heart attack in the first chapter. Employing dramatic irony to excellent effect, the characters are unable to put all the pieces together, but the reader can. It's for the reader to decide whether the coincidences mean any more than a coincidence normally does simply because of the decreased probability that these artifacts and people could come together in a decimated world. The many characters are lovable, but what I take from the book is a meditation on the meaning of "civilization." Like some other readers, I wondered for a while what the author was doing spending so much time in flashbacks about the actor's life before the end of the world. But it turns out that the vanished civilization is what gives the new supposed wilderness meaning.

What would you miss about civilization? I found the examination of the nasty things left behind to be the most illuminating. Things like the lack of communication all these communication gadgets cause, paparazzi and the culture of celebrity, and going to work every day. The meditation on "work" especially affected me because whether the people enjoyed their jobs or loathed every moment, they became zombies of routine.

Civilization itself is something of a routine. We perpetuate it with our smaller routines, which add up to cultural movements. At one point, one of the characters, in denial about the gravity of the pandemic, says, "Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?" The other replies, "Well, it was always a little fragile, wasn't it?" It's a great point. But what they're both missing is that the end of civilization is not the end of the world. Most of the surviving characters settle into communities or tribes that help each other along in this business of living. When, near the end of the book, a ghost in a comic book describes death as having awakened from a dream, I thought he might be describing the common thread in all the characters' experiences of the end of civilization.

The main tribe, a troupe of actors and musicians, has a motto: "Because survival is insufficient." This novel has convinced me that just surviving is unlikely if not impossible. Humans will always make culture, whether it relies on the past or focuses on the present. Station Eleven is a well written, thought-provoking, and memorable novel.

Novels I've Read in 2015:
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Along the Far Shores by Kristin Gleeson