Plot Junkie: Station Eleven: A Novel, Emily St. John Mandel

The best book I’ve read this year is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: A Novel. It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful, it’s intoxicating, it’s all the wonderful things that a book should be and more. In my humble and personal. Here’s what I had to say about it back in January, after my first reading:

In a genre that is getting a little full (post-apocalyptic road stories), this one stands out. I read this in one long and slightly feverish gulp, in bed recovering from a bout of the flu in the middle of a snow-storm. If there is a better way to read a novel about the collapse of civilization following an epidemic, I’m not sure what it is.

I read so much that often the experience of reading is lost–I read on the metro and in between classes, I read while the water in the shower is heating up and the coffee is brewing. I often read while I walk. I remember the plots, but not myself while reading. There are a few exceptions–I remember the first time I read The Woman in White–I’d been dreading it, because it was so long and I had to get it done in three days, and I enjoyed it so much that I read it in one (very long) sitting, curled up in the arm chair I inherited from my grandfather, drinking cup after cup of scalding orange pekoe in my sun-dappled living room, with the pets stretched out in the floor. I remember the first time I read Little Women, on a road trip up to Grandma’s house, nestled in the back of the station wagon with suitcases and Christmas gifts all around.

I’ll remember when and where I read this. Perfect setting to read such a good book.

Station Eleven traces the effects of a global pandemic on a few survivors. Twenty years after 99.99% (estimated–there is no way to verify in the new world) of the world’s population dies, after technology collapses, after the gasoline goes bad, when the world once more becomes huge and unknowable, The Traveling Symphony moves from camp to camp, putting on Shakespearean dramas and playing the music of Brahms and Beethoven. Their motto is from a line from Star Trek: Because survival is not enough. Humans play music and sing songs and tell stories because imagination is a necessary human function. The book is preoccupied with what it means to be human, with what it means to be civilized, with how much of our understanding of the world is dependent on the people in our world. I loved this take on the post-apocalyptic.

And beside the themes, which I loved, the structure of the book was just amazing. One of the problems with an apocalyptic novel is that they tend to be so unremittingly bleak. We once had it all, and everything fell apart. Woe is me. In stories of “after,” people are always looking backward. It can make the movement of the story stutter, halt, never really get going. This, instead, moved back and forth between long before and just before and after and later after, in story lines that were connected enough and memorable enough to stay clear, but not actually directly interwoven. Brilliantly done.

And the language! It’s just gorgeous. It’s concise and vivid, and at times wings into a metaphor or phrase that is so beautiful that you heart just clenches.

Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.

This is the last sentence of the first chapter. Wham. (That’s not a spoiler as the pandemic obviously hadn’t happened yet, and so was inevitably coming. )

He’d been able to see reasonably well with an extremely thick pair of glasses, but he’d lost these six years ago and since then he’d lived in a confusing landscape distilled to pure color according to season— summer mostly green, winter mostly gray and white—in which blurred figures swam into view and then receded before he could figure out who they were. He couldn’t tell if his headaches were caused by straining to see or by his anxiety at never being able to see what was coming, but he did know the situation wasn’t helped by the first flute, who had a habit of sighing loudly whenever the seventh guitar had to stop rehearsal to ask for clarification on the score that he couldn’t see.

I think I love the above because it’s such a beautiful expression of my greatest fear about the loss of civilization–without it, I’d be blind as a bat.  I was reading Outlander the other day (giving it a try, it still hasn’t grabbed me) and had the realization that if I fell through stones in Scotland, I’d have about a week before my contacts were so dry that they were unwearable. And then I’d be blind. And dependent. And would die. Time-travel fantasy is not for the nearly blind. It’s possible I’m being a bit too literal about time-travel fantasy.

This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.

The words just sing, don’t they? There are about a million more lines and phrases that I noted for their sheer beauty and craft, but you should find them yourself.

I read this for the first time in January, then I read it again in April, I’ve listened to the audio book and am contemplating a fourth return. I’m a rereader–if I liked a book the first time, the chances that I’ll want to return to that world are high. But that’s a lot, even for me. So, in my personal and humble, you should read it. 

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