(abandoned airport, Athens; beware of planes during a pandemic)
If you’re suddenly struck down by a stomach virus while reading a book about a global flu pandemic that wipes just about everybody off the earth, you might rightly assume that the literary gods are having a laugh at your expense. That was my experience this week while reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. And I can confidently proclaim that this is a terrific book to read while lying flat on the bathroom floor.
It would also be a terrific book to read in a group, so Bookclubs! Take note! This gem is out in paperback now.
I am late to the party with this novel. It was a National Book Award Finalist for 2014 and the winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction. It was on the Pen/Falkner Award shortlist, and it was on the longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. People have been talking and talking and talking about this book, but I have avoided it because I am sick to death of the apocolypse. Every time I see my kids open up yet another book about terrible people doing terrible things in terrible circumstances at the end of days, I feel like screaming.
But – strangely – I think that this story about a post-apocolyptic future world hits all the right notes. Station Eleven follows several characters and a science fiction comic book just before, during, and after the flu pandemic wipes out most human life on earth. The novel begins when a famous actor has a heart attack on stage while performing King Lear. An EMT, who used to be a tabloid reporter, tries and fails to save him. He then walks out into a city where everyone is beginning to die. Years later, a child actor from that performance is roaming through (what used to be) Michigan as part of a “travelling symphony,” performing music and theater, dodging violence, and searching for comic books and old entertainment magazines in abandoned houses. Events and people are connected in mysterious ways.
(An artist’s representation of the comic book, included in first edition copies of the book)
The reason why I think that this book would be so great for a book club discussion is that it has a snappy plot but also raises a host of compelling questions to deliberate. Questions that came to my mind were: What kind(s) of art endures? Does the production of art matter if no one sees it (i.e. does it matter if a novel gets published?)? Does fame have any value? Are YOU doing any kind of work that will endure?
And the good news: Station Eleven has a burning hope at its center. A central message is that human beings can create amazing things. You all know how deeply I’ve been searching for lights-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel these days. It’s kind of remarkable to read about the end of the world and come away feeling…buoyed.