I put that up front, because the basic outline of the end of the world in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is very close to Stephen King's The Stand: a supercharged flu virus sweeps the world and kills 99.9% of the population in a few weeks. There's almost nothing else in common between the books, except possibly a fascinating attention to the detail of what it's like to be a survivor; still, it was enough for me to think that Station Eleven reads very much like Mandel read The Stand and asked, "why would you mess up this lovely story about humanity with some trumped up notions of good and evil?"
In fact, the notion that there is a Greater Purpose is exactly the opposite of what this book is about. It's about how connections, explanations, and causation is not the same as meaning, purpose, or reason. "Everything happens for a reason," says one character, coming across as vaguely New Agey. When another character says the same thing 20 years later in a different world, it's ominous, and the heavier implications of that statement are much more clear.
It's a hard story to summarize, because it follows several characters in several time periods. The lynchpin is Arthur Leander, a famous movie star with a preteen son, three ex-wives, and the role of King Lear in a new production. He dies in the first scene, not a victim of the flu, but of a standard heart attack. It's tempting to map out how all the characters are related to him, but the truth is that it's both complicatedly interconnected and not particularly neatly tied up: Jeevan, a member of the audience who tries to save Arthur's life, used to be a paparazzo in LA and once took a picture of Arthur's first wife, Miranda. Miranda was an artist who wrote a series of comic books that Arthur gave to a little girl in the play, Kristen. Kristen survives the plague and, many years later, is an actress with a traveling symphony. Clark was one of Arthur's oldest friends, but they drifted apart when they became famous. Their stories intertwine, and the threads cross between the world before and the world after.
The two stories that thread through this are Arthur's life, in the past, and an encounter between the Symphony and a town controlled by a dangerous religious zealot. They are very different stories--the life of a man from a small town who becomes a movie star and a tense post-apocalyptic piece. They are tied by the characters, but also by the notion that all stories are tied together somehow, that the threads that hold the world together are not big, important cords, but rather fine, delicate weaving, so interconnected that the tiny threads make strong cloth. At least, that's what I think.
The other thing that I think this book is about is the question of whether to go forward or backward. I'm going to get to this in my last discussion question below (really just a bulleted list of points; so much easier than having to segue between them!) but I think it's one of the core themes of the story and I want to bring it up. This book is very much about the past versus the future, in some very complicated ways.
Okay, let's get to this.
1) Let's get this out of the way: the epidemiology here is sketchy, right? If you look at the speed of infection and the speed of death, even with a 100% infection rate and a 100% mortality rate, it kills too fast to spread like this, right? I mean, maybe that first plane could take out all of Toronto, but nobody sick makes it to the little backwater towns where no one's even passed through this month who's been on a plane. So that's a little sketchy. Which brings us to:
2) The loss of the infrastructure is what really brings us down. How off-the-grid can you REALLY live? Especially unexpectedly in the winter? It definitely seems like things would stabilize eventually, but it makes you think about the supply chain for every single little thing around us.
3) There is a difference between a scarce-resource apocalypse and a resource-rich apocalypse. Essentially, in some stories, most people die but the world remains--survivors have the leftovers and the same natural resources that were available 1,000 years ago. In the other, the world has been ravaged, or civilization breaks down without killing most of the population, and suddenly supply and demand are off. Very different end of the world books.
4) This makes for a fairly peaceful end of the world here, which I find kind of beautiful. Life is not easy--there's little medicine, people die very easily--but starvation isn't the big killer. By the time the canned food runs out, most people have figured out that they need a garden and to hunt. People can be cautious instead of afraid. I love this opportunity to glimpse this best side of humanity.
5) There is some discussion in the book of the right way to raise children in such a world; do you teach them about the past, and all the wonders they can't even comprehend? Or do you let that die, teaching them only about the world around them? The answer to this one seems obvious to me, but I think the emotional baggage of the past would play a bigger role when facing the question in reality.
6) Moments in the book that broke my heart or moved me or that I want to talk about: the house Kristen and August go into, where the parents are dead in their bed and the child dead in its own; the moment when Kristen realizes that she's about to die and everything becomes okay; Clark and Arthur going out to dinner; the museum. No spoilers; just discuss.
7) What do you make of Miranda? Kris didn't like her at all; I found her intriguing. She was not someone I related to, but someone I recognized; wholly turned inward, with only the most tenuous connections outside herself. Because it's what the world dictates, she follows those, and so she ends up in her relationship, in her job, married. But her art, her story, is the only thing that's real to her. She's unlike all the other viewpoint characters, though, and she breaks the pattern of who's included. What do you think is the reason? Does it have to do with her comics?
8) Don't you want to read her comics? It sounds amazing, and beautiful, and complicated. Maybe too heavyhanded a metaphor, but this ties back to the question of weather connection implies meaning: it's a similar story, but not a similar ending.
9) The big question in the story-within-the-story is about whether to go forward, into a dangerous and precarious unknown, or to try to go back to something that is ruined, and to make a life in those ruins. I think this ties directly into all the different tensions in the story--the zealots, the question of how to raise the children. Do you want to move forward, or do you want to move back? Moving back isn't literally possible, of course, but clinging to the memories, living on them or against them, allows them to dictate your future.
This post is ridiculously long, and I want to go on and on about that point--about how I think that concealing the past from the children is, counterintuitively, about clinging to he past. Holding the past as history lets you move forward with hope and intent; hiding it as a secret makes it present and dangerous, keeps you living with it. About how Arthur's life is all about moving forward--from his small hometown, out of college into acting, through three marriages. About Miranda's forward motion in life, and how she brings what matters with her. Clark and the Museum; the symphony and Shakespeare. The zealots and the belief that the old world had to die for the new one to be born.
It's silly to apologize; this post is no more a jumble than most of my posts. But this book was amazing--I would never have believed it would work, and here it is, lovely and perfect, full of people doing the best they can--even the villains. The more I think about it, the more I love it. You should absolutely read it.