You ever read something, think it’s okay, but you’re not in love, and it just keeps coming at you? You find yourself thinking about it in the shower or washing the dishes and you wonder, “Did I like it or not?” but in the end, it doesn’t matter if you liked it, because it stuck to you. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was like that for me. I read it and I was fine with it as I was reading it. I was enjoying it, but as I was reading I wasn’t thinking “I’VE GOTTA RECOMMEND THIS ON CBC.” Then something happened, I stopped reading the book and it got to me. I woke up thinking about it, I thought about it during yoga, making dinner, brushing my teeth. I was finished with the book, but Station Eleven wouldn’t let me go. That’s how we got here. Let’s talk about the basics.
“One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.”
“My fourth novel is about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company in a post-apocalyptic North America. It’s also about friendship, memory, love, celebrity, our obsession with objects, oppressive dinner parties, comic books, and knife-throwing.”
I think all that is pretty accurate, which is why I thought I would adore the book from start to finish and that right now I’d be shoving it down your gorgeous little throat. I’m not sure why I didn’t love this book that way at first, but I think it has a lot to do with pacing. You see, I’ve been reading a lot of fast-paced YA and fantasy lately and I’ve grown very accustomed to being rapidly entertained and Station Eleven doesn’t give that to you.
As the Knopf description mentions, the narrative moves back and forth in time, showing us moments from the Hollywood actor’s life and that of The Traveling Symphony. It’s not confusing in the least, but it will keep you from zooming through the pages like you might in a more linear narrative. So ultimately, what did I love? Why are you reading this?
I loved that Station Eleven is just too damn real. Sure, it’s dystopian, but it’s the kind of dystopia you can imagine happening next week. A pandemic flu wipes out most of the world’s population and the survivors just keep on keepin’ on, doing their best to continue living as the pre-flu world crumbles around them. Everything that happens in the entire novel is pretty relatable, which means that everything that happens sinks into you in a way you might not see coming at first. For me, it took a couple days.
Though the story of the Hollywood actor who dies at the start of the novel is perhaps not completely relatable for most of us, that of the Traveling Symphony is. They’re normal people, trying to live life in a world that’s drastically different from the one many of them grew up in. There’s no chosen one, no flashy reveals about what “really” happened with the flu, no aliens, no oppressive government, factions, districts or any of the trappings of dystopian fiction as we usually expect it. Something about this is really powerful because it lets you into the story in a way that we don’t usually get to experience.
Don’t get me wrong I love out-there dystopian fiction, you know that. But this was a cool book and I hope you’ll check it out. I think people who don’t always love dystopian fiction will like this book, along with die hard fans of the genre like myself. I’m reluctant to tell you much more about the plot because the way Mandel weaves the stories of the world pre-flu and post-flu is a part of the novel’s genius and too much information might ruin it for you.
There great characters and tense moments, there are moments you’ll recognize from your own life with haunting accuracy. There are remnants of your life you’ll recognize strewn throughout the book and you’ll easily imagine what it would be like to survive the flu. If you’re looking for a dystopian thriller or action story, this isn’t for you. But if you’d like to read a dystopian novel that you can see yourself in, I think you’ll enjoy this book.
Allison Carr Waechter is teaching a summer class. Anyone who has taken or taught a summer class knows that the summer class has taken over her identity.