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I first heard of Station Eleven via Ana's recap of a book event she went to, where the subject of the the importance of art after dramatic and catastrophic events were discussed in the context of the novel. This book has a lot to say about art, popular culture, and the stories that will persist after a worldwide disaster, and I thought the discussion Ana summarized was excellent. I decided to pick the book up to see if the contents held up to the ideas Ana shared in her post.

cover of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. (source)

I've heard this book called a optimistic version of The Road, which means very little to me since I didn't read The Road. I do agree with the charge of optimism post-reading. Maybe if you've read The Road that's a good indicator of enjoyment, but if you haven't, well, there's a movie version and Viggo Mortensen looks dirty and worried in all the pictures and clips I've seen, which may help clarify the subject matter at hand. Or maybe you only like dirty Viggo Mortensen, in which case, godspeed to your streaming service of choice, my friend.

This isn't a super violent story about the end of the world. It doesn't linger on the horror of a global flu that wipes out most of humanity, but instead uses it as a framing device. It's not specifically full of terror about what society holds in store for our characters after the loss of everything we have now. Terror isn't the point, or it never felt like it to me. It felt like a story about people in a transition, learning, very slowly, that it's time for them to let go, but recognizing how easy it is to be pulled back. There's an very slight and excellent piece of characterization about a side character who tries to create new art — and somehow I wasn't surprised at the results of her attempt. Art brings joy and fulfillment, but art is hard.

There's something else about it that's made me dwell on it, even though I read it in December, past when I would normally let an original, standalone novel go. The power of stories, both fictional and otherwise, pings me, considering how much of myself I invest in stories and storytelling. I guess that's my answer to why I'm still thinking about it months later. Station Eleven is a lovely journey about the power of stories, both our own and the ones we create by ourselves and with each other.

Station Eleven is, on the surface, a story about the end of one world and the beginning of the next, another entry into high mortality pandemic genre that often feels a little obsessive. We're like voyeurs who can't wait to get off to all the myriads ways the human race is going to eventually bite it. I'm guilty of being a member of that group, a proud, card-carrying member of the super-flu fan club (I grew up re-watching The Stand miniseries on a somewhat problematic loop). But I went in primed by discussion of the utility of art, so from the beginning the book was less about the flu and more about the stories the people share, live, and create, as well as the comic book that connects our characters, the titular Station Eleven.

I'm not sure whether my disinterest in Shakespeare played a part in me being mostly unconcerned with the aspect of the novel that did its best to convince me that one of the most important and integral things central to human beings is stories, and that would be the first thing we would reclaim. I do believe we would return, very shortly, to stories, but whether or not it would be Shakespeare is hit or miss for me. There's so many to choose from that is seems odd to dedicate all your time to one author's work, so I started wondering why. The more I wondered this the more scenarios I came up, and they were all heartbreaking.

do you cry a lot?

The success of this novel for me lies in the negative spaces the author didn't fill in leaving it to the reader to wonder why. Perhaps the focus on Shakespeare is a matter of scarcity — in the interim years after the flu, what writing survives in a society where people need fuel to burn to live? I made myself desperately sad with this line of thinking, and I did it over and over again throughout the novel when considering the choices characters made in the post-flu world. Although this can be an optimistic novel, the more consideration I give it the more pockets of sadness I come away with.

There are two parallel stories here about the power stories have to influence us. One role is played by Arthur, an actor of dwindling importance who dies at the beginning of our story, on stage while performing King Lear. The other is Miranda, an artist and writer who is heading toward a life of corporate responsibilities before marrying Arthur and getting derailed for a time. They each engage in a specific type of art: Arthur, acting in films and on stage, and for Miranda, prose and brush as she creates a science fiction comic, Station Eleven.

The different way they treat their art is fascinating; Arthur acts, so he's obviously very public, and inevitably his private life goes the same direction, while Miranda's comic that she spends years and years working on and perfecting is largely private, for her, and gaining success and notoriety for it isn't the point of the process. The process was the point. But with Arthur, the process wasn't the point, and led him to trying to fill what was missing with affairs and a trail of women he discards as he lives his life, hunting for something he's not finding in his art which he eventually locates in his son (albeit a little too late).

Both Arthur and Miranda's influence on the world, his son and her comic, are the anchors of the story connecting the past the book leaves behind with the future it builds. I left the book thinking of people as these human story factories, and how the stories we choose to tell by the choices we make will inevitably create more stories we can never know the ending to, but also how hard to can be to find the story in you, how long it can take to discover and tell it, and sometimes, it's just not possible at all because the story is out of your hands. Is this a fictional argument about the Death of the Author? *squints*

Kristen, the young girl who watches Arthur die but survives the flu, knows Arthur but also knows Miranda's comic, given to her by Arthur after Miranda shares self-published copies before the outbreak. She grows up and joins the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel around the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare.

It felt like the story wanted to parallel her mostly positive journey through the new world with the son that Arthur leaves behind, as well, but the problem for me was Tyler never felt like a true character, but a cipher. That's not necessarily a criticism — as a character he's a thinly drawn boogeyman, but as a representation of how the cultural event of the flu changed the story of the world, he's a representation of how the stories we have now can influence people to do horrible things in a world where our current context no longer applies. He was fleshed out enough for the purposes of the book, but as I read Tyler became for Arthur what Station Eleven is for Miranda — stories created by people who touch the world in ways the creators will never know about. They're parts of the story Kristen will eventually put together once she has all the pieces.

These were the stories of two people who died and what they left behind, and how one story — Station Eleven — took on wildly opposing meanings in different contexts and when being read by two people who experience the end of their world in very different ways.

What I take from this story isn't what anyone else will take from it. Tyler and Kristen both read Station Eleven, a comic rendering a future where people just want to go home and can't while the real future is a place where there's no way to go back at all to what once was. It became a story about how two people read the same story, go through the similar kinds of cultural and personal apocalypses, and took away from Station Eleven widely different meanings.

Stories change us, but we change stories, too.

Other Reviews
things mean a lot, The Midnight Garden, Estella's Revenge, The Book Smugglers (Thea), The Writer and the Critic, Necromancy Never Pays, Unbridled Enthusiasm, Tenacious Reader, yours?

Date: 2015-02-03 01:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I like this reading, but I think there's a difference between the way Tyler was left alone to do his reading and the way the other characters read and interacted with each other. I said in my review that Tyler's unexamined attitudes are like those of the characters Arthur's friend Graham spent his corporate life having interventions for. One of the results of the apocalypse is that people are examining why they do what they do--witness the tattoos.


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