PostHumous Book Review: Station Eleven: Remaining Human after Doomsday

PostHumous Book Reviews: Personal reflections on books worthy of a re-read.

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Today's review is by guest writer Joe Johnson.

At first glance, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: A Novel belongs on the same well-trodden path as other it’s-the-end-of-the-world tales, like Stephen King’s formidable, The Stand, or George Stewart’s Earth Abides. Pestilence washes over the world like an unstoppable force, shattering society and decimating humanity. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. While Station Eleven bears a familial resemblance to these other apocalyptic narratives, it tells a noticeably different kind of story. Not every post-pandemic novel becomes a National Book Award Finalist, or subtly subverts a genre, or causes me to reflect and say, “Now that was beautiful,” as I finish it, yet Station Eleven accomplished all of these things. Why? 

One would not be too surprised to read a doomsday story that described the Louvre Museum being reduced, as a result of the apocalypse, to a Parisian relic with a refugee camp accumulating around it like barnacles on a well-worn ship. One would be much more surprised if this same story actually centered upon survivors still concerned about preserving the art pieces within the museum. In an article about the book featured in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman commented, “Station Eleven is set in a familiar genre universe, in which a pandemic has destroyed civilization. The twist—the thing that makes Station Eleven National Book Award material—is that the survivors are artists.”  

Rather than being told from the perspective of a single protagonist, Station Eleven contains an ensemble cast of characters, from the aging Shakespearean actor Arthur Lander, who dies near the beginning of the novel in the midst of a production of King Lear, to Kirsten, a member of the Traveling Symphony, a roving musical and theatrical troupe that journeys through the region surrounding Lakes Huron and Michigan, giving performances to the inhabitants of the isolated settlements they pass through. As the narrative unfolds, Station Eleven takes the reader back and forth amongst characters and between the pre-flu world and the world of the Traveling Symphony, known as Year Twenty. By Year Twenty, the worst stages of apocalyptic bloodbath have already subsided, and the survivors of the collapse have regrouped into what the narrator describes as, “An archipelago of small towns.” 

Though the world has become more peaceful since the post-pandemic chaos of the first years, there is still an air of danger; strangers, while not shot on sight, are still viewed as potential threats, and it isn’t wise to admit to being unarmed or outnumbered. Appropriately enough, the reader first meets the Traveling Symphony as they walk through a forest near Lake Michigan in the sweltering July heat. The Symphony travels in a caravan mostly composed of what were once trucks, now stripped of all excess weight and pulled by horses. As they walk through the unfamiliar wood, the sight of this post-apocalyptic wagon train, with actors and musicians wearily trudging down the road, weapons in hand, while at the same time bickering and rehearsing their lines, serves as a clever introduction to the mixture of familiar and unfamiliar that Mandel’s world contains.  

The title of the novel, Station Eleven, comes from the name of the graphic novel carried by Kirsten. Her Station Eleven is a mysterious artifact from the old world. Arthur gave it to her, but the reader only gradually learns more about the symbolic and central role of the graphic novels. She keeps these two treasures, Dr. Eleven, Vol. I, No. I: Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven, Vol. I, No. 2: The Pursuit, in her backpack for safekeeping. They tell the tale of a physicist, Dr. Eleven, who is fated to live on a space station (station eleven) after escaping from planet earth. The frames in the comics have a sad and evocative quality about them, and are Kirsten’s most concrete connection to the elusive pre-pandemic world that she is too young to really remember. Her curiosity about their unknown creator (the only biographical information Kirsten has is the brief and unhelpful, “By M.C.”) makes Station Eleven as much a mystery novel as a post-apocalyptic tale. The reader only gradually learns the identity of the graphic novel’s creator, as well as the reasons why she put such painstaking work into them. 

Station Eleven is unique among the apocalyptic novels I have come across in its ability to ponder the question of what it means to remain human when civilization falls apart. When the rest of society is destroyed by some catastrophe, does culture have to die with it? Even more so, would anyone miss it or work to keep it alive? One of the most fascinating things to me about the world created by St. John Mandel is the individuals living in the post-pandemic world still have a desire for something greater than mere day-to-day existence. Early on in the book, one of the Symphony members explains why they perform so many Shakespearean plays, rather than more modern productions, by saying, “People want what was best about the world.” 

Station Eleven resonated deeply with me because I’d like to hold out hope that if things fall apart, there would still be some who wanted to preserve and pass on an appreciation for art and creativity, despite the less than apparent usefulness of these things in the quest for brute survival. To again quote Joshua Rothman’s piece in The New Yorker, “Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which asked what would remain after the collapse of culture, Station Eleven asks how culture gets put together again.” Cormac McCarthy’s excellent but dark and bleak work imagines a world where culture, along with much of human decency, seems to have sadly, and irreversibly, disappeared in the desperate struggle for survival. 
Of course, there is still evil in the world of Station Eleven. A large part of the drama surrounding the adventures of the Traveling Symphony is when they encounter a dangerous and enigmatic prophet who has taken over a town they unknowingly enter and perform in. The reader learns more about both the cult and its leader, and a violent showdown does indeed take place. However, even in the face of this violence, I don’t think Station Eleven’s narrative devolves into the levels of butchery that might occur with other more conventional post-apocalyptic novels. 

To be fair, one of the criticisms of Station Eleven is that it doesn’t seem to do justice to the massive psychological trauma that societal collapse would inflict. In a review piece published in The New York Times, Sigrid Nunez comments that: "For the most part, they [the survivors] do not behave very differently from people living in ordinary, civilized times. Hunger, thirst and exhaustion are alluded to, but there is no penetrating sense of the day-to-day struggle of vulnerable human beings lacking the basic amenities of life.”

One of the mottos used by some in the Symphony to explain why they do what they do is, “Because survival is insufficient” (the irony that this phrase is from Star Trek rather than Shakespeare is not lost on the book’s characters). For me, though, that sentiment helps explain why Station Eleven moved me so profoundly. I would like to hold out hope that, even in the face of vast difficulties, people can not only survive, but live. 

Joe Johnson lives in Springfield, Illinois and is married to Rebekah. He is some kind of mad scientist or alchemist. Joe writes regularly at So Maybe I Should Have Been A Theologian, where he reviews and assesses whatever theology and Biblical scholarship he is reading through. Maybe someday someone will convince he has a gifting for ministry and he will actually go to seminary.

Other PostHumous Book Reviews:
"The Time Travelers Wife and Sanctification" by guest writer Dan Leman
"The Mundane Miracles of the Hiding Place" by Chris Marchand
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