Rereading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ for last month’s edition of Paperback Riders, I was reminded of another, and in my view far better, “post-apocalyptic” novel. ‘Station Eleven‘ is about a worldwide pandemic, The Georgia Flu, that spreads rapidly across the world through air transport and close contact with infected people. Published in 2014, rereading it in the post-Covid world is educational as it throws an interesting light on the response to the real-world pandemic.
Set on either side of the US/Canada border around the Great Lakes the book centres on the life of Kirsten Raymonde from the last night of the “old world”, appearing in a production of ‘King Lear’ as a child actor, and also in her present-day life with The Travelling Symphony, a medieval style band of troubadours who move around the various settlements that have sprung up in the wake of the collapse of civilization.
There are a number of other recurring characters, who are all in some way connected to the lead actor in the King Lear production, Arthur Leander (Mandel clearly named him deliberately), who dies on stage from a heart attack on the last night. Leander is the Deus Ex Machina who despite being physically absent from the new world connects the lives of other people who do live on, or sometimes don’t.
I’m not going to spoil the plot any more than I can help, because the book is one of the best I’ve read in recent years, and I’d encourage you to seek it out and follow the story. But a bit of detail is needed to explain why you should read it. Station Eleven is the name of a passion project comic book written and drawn by Arthur’s first wife, which Kirsten has been given one of the few copies of by Arthur in the old world. Kirsten’s travels draw her to the Museum of Civilisation, where old-world artefacts are kept in a settlement at what was a small regional airport.
The way Mandel allows plot lines (Miranda’s fate being one) to just drop reflects how it must feel, people just faded out of existence, as though they had left the stage at the end of their roles is very effective. The book is full of theatrical references, with bits of Shakespeare popping up at odd moments to highlight traits in the characters.
Given AUK’s struggles with our chosen musical genre, the way ‘Station Eleven‘ has been categorised by critics is worth studying. I found it in the Science Fiction section, Mandel denies that it is SF as there is no tech in it. She wrote this and other later books to escape the pigeonhole of being a “crime novelist”. Her subsequent books, ‘The Glass Hotel’ and ‘Sea of Tranquility’ feature an alternate timeline where Georgia Flu never becomes a pandemic, and like parts of ‘Station Eleven‘, look at how economics affects lives at an individual and global level. Perhaps the right category, if we must have one, is speculative fiction, novels that play with alternate futures or pasts, or ways of living and use them to shed light on our present.
‘Station Eleven‘ was written in a pre-Trump as well as a pre-Covid world. So much has changed since 2014, but despite that Mandel offers a glimpse into a “might have been” world that tells us a lot about how human beings at an individual level interact in situations that challenge their view of themselves.
There is a rather good TV miniseries based, more closely than is often the case, on the book. It simplifies the plot of course, as is inevitable, but gets the characters and the settings just about right. Certainly, there were no glitches with the pictures in my head from when I’d read the book. But even if you’ve seen the series, you should still read the book to get the breadth of Mandel’s achievement with this fascinating story.
There is a variety of “old world” music in the TV series, with folk, pop, funk and orchestral tracks being used to underscore plot points. It’s one of the best aspects of the series that it uses the music rather than just plastering it on top to make a soundtrack album and earn a bit of revenue. Some of it is in “our” world. Here’s one…