Wednesday, July 8, 2015

‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover, 'Station Eleven,' a novel by Emily St. John Mandel. Cover art depicts a night-time scene of tents behind a barrier wall. An emblazon on the cover identifies the novel as a National Book Award Finalist.
In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage, 2015), a deadly virus has wiped out nearly all of the earth’s human population. Its survivors group in pre-industrial settlements in former strip malls, airports and schools.

A troupe of actors and a symphony orchestra travel among these settlements, performing Shakespeare’s plays. When they arrive at one settlement, they discover that it is under the control of a religious cult. A couple who settled there to have a baby have now disappeared and headstones mark their empty graves in the settlement cemetery. The couple’s last-known destination was the “Museum of Civilization.”

The novel’s title, Station Eleven, takes its name from a graphic novel self-published in a two-volume set by one of the characters before the onset of the virus. The graphic novels are the possessions of Kirstin, a young actor with the traveling players.

The story shifts among time and perspective. It focuses in turn upon Arthur, a film and stage actor who died on stage during a performance of King Lear just before the deadly virus broke out; and Jeevan, a paramedic and former entertainment journalist who was in the audience during Arthur’s final performance. The way these characters’ lives connect through objects and coincidence add a fascinating dimension to the story.

Mandel’s story presents an interesting contrast between those aspects of society that endure and those that are ephemeral. The Internet is down but at one settlement, someone has resurrected a library and a newspaper.

A slogan from Star Trek is emblazoned upon a wagon of the theater company, and one character, Clark, preserves credit cards and IDs in in the Museum of Civilization — but the corporate-speak used during his former life as a performance coach for executives take on bizarre meanings when their context no longer exists.

Disclosure of Material Connection: My taxes support my public library’s acquisition of this and other resources. I consider the access I enjoy to be a “priceless” return on my investment.

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