One of my early holiday escapes was Emily St. John Mandel's utterly enthralling Station Eleven.
It's a little hard to write about Station Eleven, though, because it's a book that's a bit hard to pin down.
For a book so full of death, it's a book full of life.
For a book so full of horror, it's a book full of love.
For a book so full of desolation, it's a book full of art.
For a book so full of disease, it's a book full of healing.
Station Eleven's hook is simple, yet thoroughly effective: a worldwide pandemic has almost completely extinguished the human race, but left the rest of the world unaltered. Scattered around the world, tiny snatches of survivors here and there make do.
In and about the area that was once Lower Michigan, a small group of musicians and performers have banded together, and formed a traveling entertainment group, minstrels as it were, who go from place to place, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven for their livelihood.
The company's motto:
Because survival is insufficient
Using a fairly obvious approach, the book tells the story of several of the members of The Traveling Symphony, both Before, and After, interspersing flashbacks with sequential narrative.
Mandel's touch is careful and subtle, accomplishing the purpose without shoving herself in your face. Take, for example, this passage, in which the breathless speed of the calamity and the total enormity of the transformation is conveyed via the simple device of a run-on, no-time-for-a-break, hurry-up-what-can-we-do-?, everything-all-thrown-together-in-a-heap paragraph in a single sentence:
There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.
Meanwhile, there is a villain.
There are Ordinary Heroes.
But through all of that, Mandel's enduring theme is that, well, life goes on:
The problem with The Traveling Symphony was the same problem suffered by every group of people everywhere since before the collapse, undoubtedly since well before the beginning of recorded history. Start, for example, with the third cello: he had been waging a war of attrition with Dieter for some months following a careless remark Dieter had made about the perils of practicing an instrument in dangerous territory, the way the notes can carry for a mile on a clear day. Dieter hadn't noticed. Dieter did, however, harbor considerable resentment toward the second horn, because of something she'd once said about his acting. This resentment didn't go unnoticed -- the second horn thought he was being petty -- but when the second horn was thinking of people she didn't like very much, she ranked him well below the seventh guitar -- there weren't actually seven guitars in the Symphony, but the guitarists had a tradition of not changing their numbers when another guitarist died or left, so that currently the Symphony roster included guitars four, seven, and eight, with the location of the sixth presently in question, because they were done rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Walmart parking lot, they were hanging the Midsummer Night's Dream backdrop between the caravans, they'd been in St. Deborah by the Water for hours now and why hadn't he come to them? Anyway, the seventh guitar, whose eyesight was so bad that he couldn't do most of the routine tasks that had to be done, the repairs and hunting and such, which would have been fine if he'd found some other way to help out but he hadn't, he was essentially dead weight as far as the second horn was concerned.
Isn't that passage simply PERFECT? The juxtaposition of the normal and the abnormal, the human and the inhuman, the typical and the bizarre is just so delightful that it takes my breath away each time I read it.
The story moves through arcs and events, but really, Station Eleven isn't about the story, it's about the storytelling; the title itself is taken from the title of a series of graphic novels penned by one of the characters, who herself is telling a story not for a purpose, but because she feels compelled to tell a story.
In the end, says Mandel, isn't this what humans basically, fundamentally, do: we come together, and we tell each other stories.
Miranda discarded fifteen versions of this image before she felt that she had the ghost exactly right, working hour upon hour, and years later, at the end, delirious on an empty beach on the coast of Malaysia with seabirds rising and plummeting through the air and a line of ships fading out on the horizon, this was the image she kept thinking of, drifting away from and then toward it and then slipping somehow through the frame: the captain is rendered in delicate watercolors, a translucent silhouette in the dim light of Dr. Eleven's office, which is identical to the administrative area in Leon Prevent's Toronto office suite, down to the two staplers on the desk. The different is that Leon Prevant's office had a view over the placid expanse of Lake Ontario, whereas Dr. Eleven's office window looks out over the City, rocky islands and bridges arching over harbors. The Pomeranian, Luli, is curled asleep in a corner of the frame. Two patches of office are obscured by dialogue bubbles.
Let's obscure those offices by dialogue bubbles.
Let's work hour upon hour to get the image exactly right, and render it in delicate watercolors.
Let's slip, somehow, through the frame, and immerse ourselves in creativity, in imagination, in communication, in human-ness.
If you should ever find your way to Mandel's Station Eleven, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.