As opposed to most stories about pandemics which cause most of the world’s population to die almost overnight, Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” is less concerned about building up tension to climaxes or creating scenes of outright conflict among the survivors, and instead more about drawing meaningful connections between the small cast of characters who are related to each other in one (unexpected) way or another. This is accomplished even though the plot development is out of chronological order and the narrative shifts across these characters, and a few additional features made this an excellent read: First, the diverse characteristics of the characters reflected by their distinctive voice; second, the different modes of storytelling, ranging from interviews to monologues to an extended sequence; as well as third, the use of the in-story graphic novel, “Station Eleven”, to ultimately tie everything together.
It probably also features one of the best introductions to and conclusions of a post-apocalyptic novel, beginning with the sudden death of the protagonist, film and theatre actor Arthur Leander, before quickly but cryptically foreshadowing the imminent deaths of all those connected to him: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city”. At the end, the attention turns to the aforementioned graphic novel by artist and later corporate executive Miranda Carroll – Leander’s first of three wives – as an allegory of the circumstances the survivors find themselves in and also for Leander’s best friend and businessman Clark Thompson to provide the final link to the chain of characters.
And while the characters are connected, Mandel also contrasts their past and present lives, before and after the outbreak of the “Georgia Flu”. Whereas similar books in the genre revolve around determining the cause of the deadly disease, adversaries and subsequent self-defence or militarisation, or some form of salvation at the end, there is more emphasis here on imagining the aftermath and focusing on the most likely human interactions, on moving beyond violence to consider the most realistic ways through which individuals might cope, organise, and make the best of their circumstances, and on the overall horror or helplessness – even if there are moments of respite – recognising that the conveniences of the contemporary world as we know it, especially transportation and communication, might never be recovered in their lifetimes. Not to mention, not knowing the plight of loved ones and friends. And yet it is this terror, of thinking not just what it might be for us hypothetically but also how we are leading our lives right now, which makes it a compelling read.