Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was a book chosen by my book club a little over a year ago. It was released in September 2014 and like many books chosen by my book club, I did not finish it in time for the meeting. In fact I didn’t finish it until early this morning (after starting over a few days ago).
The book is a post-apocalyptic mystery novel. In a world decimated by the Georgia Flu it tells the stories of people who unbeknownst to them, are united by the arts. The unifying individual is Arthur Leander, a Hollywood star who meets his fate in the opening pages of the book, before the Flu changes the world.
Through flashbacks, flash-forwards, interviews, excerpts, and even narration we are told the stories of the characters who were all loosely connected. The main character, Kirsten, and her fellow (20 or so) survivors make up the Traveling Symphony. The Symphony travels from shanty town to ghost town along the coasts of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron putting on Shakespeare and musical performances.
When the Symphony returns to a town that two of its members remained in on a previous trip they are stunned to find the town much different than before, with their friends gone. The town is now run by a man known as The Prophet who leads with violence and a fire and brimstone interpretation of the New Testament claiming he and his followers are the light of the world.
The Prophet wages war with the Symphony after one of the prophet’s betrothed child brides stows away with the Symphony. During an over dramatic climax the Prophet gets caught monologueing as he’s about to execute Kirsten and gets shot in the head by one of his own followers, a teenager, who then turns the gun on himself. The Prophet turns out to be Arthur Leander’s son Tyler. There are thick hints to this throughout, but I think it was supposed to be a jaw dropper when The Prophet quotes Station Eleven (the obscure comic that only two copies of exist, Kirsten and Tyler possessing them) and it is made (even more) clear that The Prophet is indeed Arthur’s son.
I liked the story St. John Mandel tells. It is interesting and is written in a way that the book is no doubt a page-turner. Once I committed to remembering who was who and who did what and when I did not want to put the book down. But there is still a lot to be desired.
It is a chore remembering who did what, when, where, and why because we are introduced to new characters, places, time periods and events seemingly at random. We have Arthur’s first (Miranda), second (Elizabeth), and third (Lydia) wives, Arthur’s newest love interest Tanya, Jeevan (the paramedic who performs CPR on Arthur), his brother Frank, pre-flu girlfriend Laura, post-flu wife Daria, members of the Symphony, Kirsten, August, Sayid, Jeremy, Charlie, the clarinet, the conductor and all the other ones who go by the Xth instrument, and a whole host of semi-minor characters. It becomes too much. Also there are an uncanny amount of coincidences in the book. The paramedic that performs CPR on Arthur Leander just happens to be the paparazzo who captured an unflattering photo of Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, who happens to be the author of the Station Eleven comics, whose only copies happen to be distributed to Arthur’s son, and Kirsten, two children who happen to survive for twenty years in a world where 99% of the population dies. And that’s just the tip of the coincidence iceberg. Too many coincidences for my liking. Also I think the reader was supposed to be in awe of the similarities between the Station Eleven comic and the events occurring in the Station Eleven novel. Sorry, but I’m not going to be amazed by the parallels of a fictional work within the fictional work. Also the climax of the book left a lot to be desired as well. The Prophet, a mysterious, powerful person we do not want to meet but want to learn more about hardly divulges anything about himself before being shot in the head by his own man. The Prophet had the upper hand in the situation, using the Prophet’s follower to take him down was an unbelievable and cheap way to get Kirsten out of a sticky situation.
But there still is a lot I like about the book.
We do meet the Prophet’s turncoat follower a few times prior to him offing The Prophet and then himself. He does seem to hold some anti-Prophet feelings so maybe the moment of treason isn’t completely implausible. I still don’t see why he had to shoot himself though. And maybe the Prophet, seeming so powerful and mysterious being taken down so quickly is a symbol for something. We can build up an enemy so much in our heads when in reality they’re not as strong as they seem to be.
I also admire how St. John Mandel makes a point of showing the perils of the philosophy of “everything happens for a reason.” Everything does, in fact, happen for a reason. However, the reason is not always some sign from the gods or the cosmos conveying a message to us. People getting sick with the Flu was because they were exposed to the virus. That’s all. No divine intervention there. Assigning the results of chance to a deity leads to religious dogma, which can, as the Prophet shows, lead to people terrorizing others in the name of make believe beings.
To me the most compelling part of the book was when children who never knew of life before the Flu learned about the technology available prior to the great fall. People could look up any information about anything at their leisure, and still when push came to shove it all came tumbling down. That teaches two lessons, one, skills like hunting, self-defense, and first aid are always valuable. Two, we should use the massive amounts of technology at our fingertips to our advantage…while we still can.
Overall I would call this a good, not great, book. Interesting story but too many characters and too much jumping around to fully win me over.