An Arthur C. Clarke winner for 2015, a 2014 National Book Award nominee (lost to Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and having read both I can say that justly ;)), a poetic novel set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the Traveling Symphony – an orchestra slash Shakespeare troupe – wanders through a dangerous territory reclaimed by wildness, bringing the light of civilization to the places which long have forgotten something like civilization even existed.
Sounds mysterious as well as stilted and full of itself. And to a degree – is, on both accounts. But the most interesting part of Mandel’s novel is the rest, which is neither – namely, the full of life, glittering account of the world before catastrophe.
The world after the Georgia Flu decimated global population is a place of fear and great distances. It’s also a place which has forgotten its past. Only two decades passed from the death throes of the global civilization – cars stopping, planes crashing down, electricity plants going dark, water resources drying up… and all of it just sorrowful side notes to the main theme – the rapid and chaotic death of 99 percent of humanity. But before we see the end, we are allowed to catch a glimpse of the world-that-had-been, rich and colorful and brimming with life, in its last, most triumphant (even if unknowingly) moments. It’s no accident that the most important scenes of Mandel’s book are either the depictions of a theatrical play or a sf comic book. She shows the readers scenes of unreal, ephemeral life, renditions of a nonexistent world, fantasies born entirely in the minds of humans. Juxtaposed with the post-apocalyptic, brutal world they are intended to show the humanity’s ultimate victory, over the deeply rooted bigotry, close-mindedness and cruelty of our species.
The book starts in the year zero, even in the “zero” hour, when we meet Arthur Leander, an aging actor playing the role of King Lear in a theatrical show in the middle of metropolitan Toronto. He dies of heart attack in the middle of the show, on scene, surrounded by a multitude of people, while at the same time when the first infected with an extremely lethal and viral mutation of a swine flu leave their planes to unknowingly spread the disease and die just hours later, wrecked be the same pains and helplessness as the civilization itself.
We see the end of the world through eyes of several characters, all of them somehow linked to Arthur. We meet his two ex-wives, Miranda, an unfulfilled graphic artist turned successful businesswoman, and Elisabeth, a doe-eyed model whose unrequited love for the history propels her to Jerusalem with Arthur’s only son, Tyler. There’s also Clark, Arthur’s only real friend; Kirsten, a child actress witnessing his death on stage, and Jeevan, a former paparazzo turned entertainment journalist turned paramedic, who tries in vain to save Arthur’s life. Different choices, different paths, different worldviews form an intriguing panoply of small apocalypses.
This part is truly formidable; elegantly written in elegiac, poetic, minor tones, not too flashy, not overly dramatic. Mandel tries to find her own voice in a already highly populated filed of post-apocalypse. Yet she succeeds more in the actual apocalypse area ;).
Why? Simply put, the world twenty years after is… almost painfully stereotypical. I was torn between “painfully” and “boringly” stereotypical – because there is everything you’d expect: a false, bloodthirsty prophet with a penchant for multiple wives aged twelve up, miles of highways stacked up high with rusting cars, kidnappings, chases and shootouts. Close-mouthed, armed people living in the new Wild West, which has moved into the Great Lakes area. Mad Max tamed, clean shaved and clad in an old flannel shirt. A world where a human kill is tattooed on your wrist. Seems much nicer than what is actually happening now in big chunks of our pre-apocalypse world. And of course let’s not forget the very noble, Star Trek-derived motto “Because survival is insufficient”. Well, yeah. Sure. Fully agree. Just for once, instead of telling, SHOW ME.
The novel revolves around Shakespeare themes. Great! I really think that one cannot have enough of Shakespeare – this guy (and no, I don’t believe his plays were written by Marlowe, or by a woman, or any other crap like this) was a genius, period. His plays are as valid and moving now as they have been centuries ago. And hence one of my biggest disappointments in Mandel’s Station Eleven – Shakespeare there is only a feint. A fig leaf covering the big, yawning emptiness of the main motto.
Yeah, there is the Traveling Symphony, playing Shakespeare plays and classical music. Yeah, the actors scavenge the empty houses of the long dead for new costumes, they rehearse their roles on the road, and we constantly hear them talking about the importance of art. But it’s only talk. What they in fact do is survive, only by slightly other means than the rest. Well, that’s only natural, I can hear you protest. After all, actors play for living, playwrights write for living, etc. What else would you want them do?
Honestly? I know I am spoiled. Quite recently I have read the best post-apocalyptic novel ever written, namely A Canticle for Leibowitz. I know that’s probably a level of sophistication and raw emotion unattainable for at least 90 percent of whatever writers can create, in that field or others. But if you want answers, read Miller’s book. There the insufficiency of survival is lived, not told about.
And then there are the characters. I know it’s not easy to write fleshed-out, flawed protagonists who at the same time are still at least a bit likeable. Among the Station Eleven’s veritable host of characters I had found only two I could relate to: Miranda and Clark. The rest seemed papery and, I must admit, a bit boring. I cared not one whit about Elisabeth or her unhinged son, or even Kirsten who was supposed to suffer the loss of the old world but in reality only obsessively gathered bit of news about Arthur from old magazines.
What I really admired, though, was Mandel’s skill in graphic writing: her descriptions of comic book panels, the tiny details of the fall of civilization juxtaposed with the intimate descriptions of a very personal end of the world, the theatrical scenes with their lights and artificial snow… She depicts the existing world vividly, fluidly, in an engaging way. But, apart from my critique above, from a fantasy/sf fan standpoint her book has one major flaw: it lacks imagination.