Never has a book convinced me more of society’s looming demise than Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an apocalyptic novel about a world just like our own that, much as our own might, dissolves after a new strain of influenza eradicates 99 percent of the human population … Confronting the end of society and recording it in a digestible manner would daunt any chronicler of truths, so Mandel skillfully frames the story around one character, an actor named Arthur Leander, and the people whose lives intersect with his … An almost masochistic horror draws us in, but what propels the narrative and what made me weep is not the world that perished — it’s the one that survived.
Mandel is an able and exuberant storyteller, and many readers will be won over by her nimble interweaving of her characters’ lives and fates … Where the book falters, I think, is in its imagination of disaster. Having accepted the science that says a flu pandemic is highly probable in our future, Mandel chooses a worst possible situation, a plague that results in the immediate and total collapse of civilization. But the survivors do not think, act or speak like people struck by such a cataclysm. For the most part, they do not behave very differently from people living in ordinary, civilized times.
The details of Arthur’s life before the flu and what happens afterward to his friends, wives and lovers create a surprisingly beautiful story of human relationships amid such devastation … One by one, members of the Traveling Symphony disappear as the Prophet pursues them through the desolate countryside, mimicking the narrative in Dr. Eleven, a comic book created by one of Arthur’s ex-wives. A gorgeous retelling of Lear unfolds through Arthur’s flashbacks and Kirsten’s attempt to stay alive.
Emily St John Mandel makes something subtle and unusual out of elements that have become garishly overfamiliar … But whereas most apocalypse novels push grimly forward into horror or dystopia, Station Eleven skips back and forth between the pre-flu world and Year Twenty after global collapse, when the worst is over and survivors have banded together into isolated settlements. Gradually, the book builds cumulative power as connections are made between the two time frames, and characters who do or don't survive … Station Eleven is not so much about apocalypse as about memory and loss, nostalgia and yearning; the effort of art to deepen our fleeting impressions of the world and bolster our solitude.
Station Eleven is terrifying, reminding us of how paper-thin the achievements of civilization are. But it’s also surprisingly — and quietly — beautiful … Mandel’s decision to open with ‘King Lear’ is appropriate, since much of the rest of the novel explores what the raging king describes as ‘unaccommodated man’ — humanity stripped of luxury and easefulness. Mandel moves back and forth between the pre- and postapocalyptic worlds, but the most effective parts are those that are set after the flu has hit … Station Eleven is a superb novel. Unlike most postapocalyptic works, it leaves us not fearful for the end of the world but appreciative of the grace of everyday existence.
Mandel is effectively spare in her depiction of both the tough hand-to-mouth existence of a devastated world and the almost unchallenged life of the celebrity—think of Cormac McCarthy seesawing with Joan Didion. The intrigue arises when the troupe is threatened by a cult and breaks into disparate offshoots struggling toward a common haven … Mandel’s solid writing and magnetic narrative make for a strong combination in what should be a breakout novel.