Book Review of “Station Eleven”: Dystopia, Comics, and… Shakespeare?

When I first picked up Station Eleven, the newest novel from Emily St. John Mandel, it was definitely on a whim. I’ve read some post-apacolyptic and dystopian fiction before (see: McCarthy’s The Road, Collins’ The Hunger Games and Orwell’s 1984), but if I’m being totally honest, I don’t love it. This time though, it was getting late, the bookstore was about to close, and the woman behind the counter pointed it out as I was about to pay. I’d heard some rumblings about the book, so I decided to give this genre another chance. Plus, the cover and the title were definitely intriguing.

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Station Eleven begins on a night that several things, including civilization, end. The novel opens on a stage production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with the famous Hollywood star Arthur Leander as the titular character. In the wings, an eight-year-old aspiring actress, Kristen Raymonde, witnesses the great actor suffer a heart attack and die onstage. As chaos ensues within the theatre, the outside world faces a threat of a different sort. Within a matter of weeks, nearly all of the global population has been wiped out by a lethal flu. Flights are grounded, borders dissolve and cars are left where they die as the survivors attempt to escape the pandemic.

Fast-forward 20 years and Kristen is still an actress, touring the country in horse-drawn pickup trucks and performing Shakespeare for the various communities her troupe, the Traveling Symphony, come across. On the road the troupe has long discussions about the things they can barely remember; wi-fi, the faces of family members, airplanes and movies. While Kristen travels, she remains fixated on Arthur Leander, looking for old gossip magazines and newspapers to add to her collection. In her pack, she also carries two issues of a comic book named Dr. Eleven, given to her by Leander on one of the nights of their performance.

As they journey through the wilderness, the troupe comes upon a mysterious fanatic known as “the prophet,” who has taken over a town they had visited some months prior. They meant to pick up two members of the troupe who had wintered in the town to have their baby, but when they arrive, the couple and their newborn are missing. In the meantime, rumors of a Museum of Civilization reach the troupe, and they decide to make their way to this mythical settlement where artifacts (laptops, credit cards, phones and other electronics) on supposedly on view. With the Prophet on their heels, the Symphony’s journey is intersected by flashbacks of Leander’s life, the strange comics Kristen carries, and the history of “the Prophet.”

Mandel has written a beautiful, lyrical novel. While some have criticized her representation of the “disaster” that ended civilization, I found it refreshing not to focus so much on the epidemic, but the events that both preceded and followed it. Throughout the book, we are given more of Leander’s life story, his connection to the author of the Dr. Eleven comics, and a twist at the end to tie each of the threads together in a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion. The author inserts subtle, occasionally disturbing clues that make the reader question the meaning of art, music, life and civilization in ways that other dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels do not. Perhaps the most lingering take-away is the motto of the Symphony, “survival is insufficient,” a line taken from an old Star Trek episode, that many members of the Symphony repeat throughout the story.

This motto, “survival is insufficient,” drives the core of the book, and I found myself thinking a lot about it even after I put the novel down. Can art save us? That seems to be the idea, and it is definitely a more hopeful conclusion than the one many other novels of this genre come to. Mandel has created a dystopian novel that is not horribly violent, does not scare us or condemn humanity and even manages, at times, to be uplifting. This is definitely a piece that will stay with you, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in a while. My two pieces of advice, then, are to pick up a copy for yourself, and always listen to the people at your local bookstore, because they seem to have a knack for suggesting just the story you need to read.

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