By Emily St. John Mandel
452 pp. Vintage. $17.
I like what I read to be somewhat topical.
A global pandemic, however, is the kind of topic most people might run the other way from if that’s all they saw in the newspaper or on Fox News.
Ha, just kidding. Fox News could be down to Tucker Carlson and a single, solitary blond and the official memo would still read “the virus is a hoax/Deep State plot.”
My Dad is very much one of these people. In terms of art, he would very much subscribe to Marie Kondo’s whole absurd maxim of throwing out whatever doesn’t “spark joy.”
Out goes the Shakespeare and the Homer, he’d definitely ditch the Nabokov and those other, more Russian Russians, and in comes whatever Will Ferrell happens to be starring in these days.
Some people, especially here in America, go to the cinema and read — purely for escapism. You work the 9-5, or too often in my Dad’s case when I was growing up, the 8-8, and you don’t want to come home and plump onto the couch to watch “Schindler’s List” or read Notes from Underground.
I get it, I do.
But, while Emily St. John Mandel likely did not foresee her book being read in an actual pandemic, “Station Eleven” tries to please both crowds. Those who read to try and escape the real world, in search of a more pleasing alternative, and those who are looking for serious, capital “L” Literature.
So it is that “Station Eleven” is something of a cross between Literature and an airport novel. On reflection, it’s hard to say which it’s more like …
Probably an airport novel.
But I don’t mean that as a bad thing. It’s got some of the more familiar characteristics of airport novels, the sort of Dan Brownian cliffhanger lines right at the end of chapters that mean you just can’t stop reading, not yet anyway.
And it’s got some of the chintzier ones.
The final line of the summary on the back of my paperback edition reads, “And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.”
That should have been my first clue, really, but I often don’t read book summaries, whether printed on the jacket or on the back of the paperback, because they can all too often be like a bad movie trailer, giving the whole thing away.
So I only read that last night, after having turned the last page.
And yes, now I get it. All the characters have something in common. A “strange twist of fate” that connects them all, other than their shared humanity and the fact that they’re part of the less than 1% of the population that somehow survived the pandemic, here known as the “Georgia Flu” (as in the country).
And now here I’m just going to tell you what it was that annoyed me the most, that possibly kept me from giving this five stars and that revealed, ultimately, that it wasn’t capital “L” literature but more like an airport novel.
The Prophet. He’s sort of the main villain here, commanding a cult following, as all good prophets do, and setting out to do evil to our protagonists, most of whom make up something called “The Traveling Symphony,” a sort of a troupe that goes around the new world (specifically, around the derelict towns lining the east coast of Lake Michigan, I think) performing music and Shakespeare.
It wasn’t the character that bothered the me, but the big reveal — the sort of thing that’s supposed to elicit an audible gasp from the reader — that comes when we find out exactly who the Prophet is.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you, but if you read the summary on the back of the book, then you’d know he was already connected to the others by some “strange twist of fate.”
It’s a move that feels very airport novel-y. You know what I mean. The kind of revelation that’s supposed to make you forget that you’re seated on the plane next to a guy who clearly has some type of ailment with the way he’s sniffling and rubbing his nose all the time.
Oh, and now he’s fiddling with the tray table, getting his germs everywhere and causing such a racket when you just want to get back to this book in which being on a plane would amount to pretty much a death sentence.
And the big reveal gets you there, it makes you tune out the outside noise.
Except it’s totally predictable. I mean, I don’t want to go on about it, but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to recognize that that particular dude is totally going to become the Prophet.
Because the timeline shifts back and forth, you see. We’re with the characters in their pre-pandemic lives when they’re happy — or not happy, mostly — and then we’re with them when the world has become one great big hell hole.
But now let’s talk about the good stuff, because the way I’ve been talking about it you probably think that I hated this book. Actually, I liked it. I just thought, being that I’ve seen it on all these “Best of the Decade” lists (here’s one) that it would be capital “L” literature.
Don’t even get me started on what books most of these lists left off … Better books, is all I’ll say.
What I liked:
God, even when I talk about I liked I’ve got to talk about what I hated. In this case, The Handmaid’s Tale. Yes, thank Homer this book is not “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Why is that incredibly overhyped Margaret Atwood novel relevant here? Because it’s also dystopian fiction except that it’s all written in something like diary entries and only teensy little hints are dropped every hundred or so pages about how everything went from suddenly being all “normal life, working the 8-8” to “now we’re in a world ruled by crazy religious fundamentalists who rape us every so often.”
I am interested in the how. If I’m reading a story set in some alternate version of Earth, I want to know what the hell alternated it. Why is it suddenly different? What happened?
No, Ms. Atwood isn’t good enough to tell us that, because that would involve explanation and compelling storytelling. Emily St. John Mandel (henceforth known as ESM) does tell us.
ESM gets into the nitty gritty (ok, maybe not too nitty, we don’t know much about the virus itself other than where it sort of came from, that it’s some kind of avian flu, and that it’s really effective in killing people).
But she shows us the world before, the world during, and the world after, and that’s what I like to see. Hell yes! I don’t like this whole “Oh, everything’s destroyed. Lots of people, like, the majority of humanity, died. How? We’re not going to get into that.”
And ESM does a fine job of reenacting what I think would happen if a killer virus came and started just wiping people out left and right.
And I think we’re all quickly becoming able to assess that.
Though COVID-19 is no “Georgia Flu,” so take some solace in that.
“Station Eleven” is one of the cheeriest dystopian novels I’ve ever read. Like, the big bad thing happens, but people move on. As they do. ESM doesn’t focus, as many other films and novels set during pandemics do, on the dangers of such a world (with one or two, mostly Prophet-related, exceptions). Her focus is very much on the world left behind. In that way, “Station Eleven” is very much a nostalgic novel, a novel that makes you appreciate a world we so often take for granted.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” one crazy and very underwritten character says to a man she’s been stranded in a Michigan airport with. “Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?”
“Well,” Clark offered, “it was always a little fragile, wouldn’t you say?”
No line better encapsulates what this book is about.
Yes, civilization is fragile. Yes, we too often only know what we had when we’ve lost it. And yes, sometimes bad things happen, sometimes real life can feel eerily like fiction.
But life finds a way … or something.
Now, if only it weren’t for that damned Prophet …
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