Twenty years after actor Arthur Leander had a heart attack onstage and a devastating flu pandemic brings civilization to its knees, Kirsten Raymonde moves between settlements of the altered world as part of the Traveling Symphony, dedicated to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive.
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.