Station Eleven

“All three caravans of the Travelling Symphony are labelled as such, THE TRAVELLING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.”

Emily St. John Mandel

I finished Station Eleven in an attempt to persuade myself that Slender Man was not coming to eat me.

Now, that is the punchline to a faintly amusing (after the fact, anyway) anecdote involving too many Marble Hornets videos, the absolute and abject horror of the witching hour between 2am and 3am, and the surprising power of an apocalypse novel actually to alleviate fear, but it also stands as a rather neat parallel with what Station Eleven itself sets out to do.

If you haven’t stumbled across this currently-very-in-vogue piece of literary SF, then a) I am very surprised, since it was Waterstone’s January Book of the Month and in all the newspapers and generally hyped by everyone, and b) here is a little summary for you:

Twenty years after the Georgia Flu all but wiped out mankind, the Travelling Symphony moves between the settlements of a post-apocalyptic America, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to the survivors. And while this is a very cool and surprisingly original idea (seriously, why has no-one else ever thought of this?) told with suspense and flair, the best parts of the novel lie in the past, with the last days of civilisation, when a Shakespearean actor named Arthur Leander died onstage and the world unravelled around those who met him. The sections following his best friend Clark, his ex-wives Miranda and Elizabeth, and his paramedic Jeevan are touched with an elegiac beauty, a sadness which both describes the ennui of modernity and always allows the possibility of a way out, which is, in a word, absorbing. I’ve written down a number of quotes from this novel, but my favourite is this (Miranda is trying to explain to her admittedly rather one-note artist boyfriend why she’s chosen to work on a graphic novel rather than a more “legitimate” form of art):

“You don’t have to understand it,” she said. “It’s mine.”

Perhaps surprisingly for a novel ostensibly about the essentially collaborative art of the theatre, this is very much a novel of individuals, interested in how individuals remain individual in such a widespread crisis: the ones who cope best are the ones who have projects, Things That Are Theirs and which may seem solipsistic and self-centred but actually render them more able to function and therefore to help others. Clark’s Museum of Civilization, for example, in which he collects seemingly useless objects from before the apocalypse, becomes a beacon of almost mystical hope for the inhabitants of Mandel’s post-apocalyptic landscape. And insomuch as people are connected in this novel, it’s by similarly useless objects: a paperweight, a graphic novel, a photograph, things which recur again and again in the unlikeliest of places. These things, these remnants of civilisation, are what connect people; they have both individual and social meaning, and to ignore either component of that meaning is a mistake.

A lot of reviewers have said that Station Eleven is a novel about art. This is true, in a limited sense, but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s a novel about civilization, about humanity, about all the abstract and occasionally abstruse things which make up Culture, all the seemingly useless things which make us individual, make us sane, make us, ultimately, more than just very clever apes, and how important it is to preserve those things.

I suppose one complaint I might make about Station Eleven is that it’s rather rose-tinted for a novel about the deaths of several billions. The book does to me seem to avoid the more unpleasant consequences of its setup; it never dwells for too long on any death, never goes into uncomfortable detail about the flu or its terrible effects. But then, it is not a novel about flu or death or, really, apocalypse; it simply postulates those things as starting-points for its discussion of other things, and its refusal to admit despair is refreshing among the doomsday predictions of, apparently, everyone else. To go back to Slender Man: this book is the thing to read in the face of fear, because it reveals that there are ways to cope with it without denying it. And in this era of Global Warming and Climate Change and Nuclear Proliferation and Ebola and other apocalyptic horrors, that’s a powerful message.

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