In the Suburbs: 'Station 11' a literary stop worth making
Published 7:10 am, Sunday, April 19, 2015
My friend Louise recently asked if I would judge the annual essay contest for Fairfield's One Book One Town and I gladly said yes. She told me the contest was based on the topic, Loss of Technology, which was part of the plot in this year's book, "Station 11," by Emily St. John Mandel.
I told her I was also interested in learning more about the book and she urged me to read it, if possible, before finalizing the awards, since some of the 39 entrants would probably have read the book. Louise told me that the book was a great read -- a mix of science fiction and some wonderful insights into the dark but hopeful future that Mandel created.
I grabbed a copy at the Fairfield University Bookstore, where I work, and read a few chapters during breaks. I was riveted! The book opens innocuously with the fatal heart attack of an actor during a performance of "King Lear" in Toronto and, coincidentally, the story then evolves into a worldwide flu pandemic that leads to the end of modern civilization and leaves barely a handful of survivors.
Suddenly, all things we take for granted -- electricity, transportation, cell phones and technology, along with other day-to-day conveniences of our lives -- were no more, replaced by some 20 years of rebirth and rebuilding. Mandel followed the new hunters and gatherers among those who survived the Georgia (as in Russia) Flu, showed us tent cities and even a prophet.
Mandel pushes her characters' survival coping to its emotional brink and so many desperate souls found themselves trapped in or wandering toward, of all things, an airport that would come to represent a new civilization.
I was particularly impressed with how the author deftly moved the plot back and forth between life before and after the flu, focusing strongly on a small troupe of Shakespearean and musical performers on foot entertaining survivors in towns along what was once the Michigan shoreline. The troupe was led by the character, Kristen, who had been a little girl at the time of the pandemic and was performing in "King Lear" with the lead actor, Arthur Leander, who succumbed to a heart attack when the book opened.
The author also focused on the tangled lives of characters like Jeevan, a young man studying to be a paramedic, who rushed on stage to try and save Leander and is one of those spared in the pandemic. Clark, who was Arthur Leander's closest friend, was also spared, along with Arthur's second wife and their son, Tyler. Miranda, Arthur's first wife and a talented comic artist (I honestly couldn't figure out if she survived, but she was living on an island somewhere) provided us with the signature title for this book -- in her own creative graphic story, "Station 11."
Keep an eye on this "Station 11" graphic. Like the surviving main characters in Mandel's book, this one travels through the web of lives and experiences in Mandel's book and it lives.
Despite the horrific end of the world that Mandel lays out in this amazing book, she helps the reader see that if one survives such a catastrophe, he or she will find new strength to rebuild. In a 20-year hiatus from technology and all other modern conveniences, people really do learn to talk to each other, care about each other and be there for fellow human beings.
I completely agree. When I finished the book, I felt renewed and refreshed and definitely hopeful. I was not depressed.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the reception and lecture for Mandel and found that so many of her comments and observations reinforced what I had seen in reading the book. I am very grateful to my friend Louise for recommending "Station 11."
And I think this brief commentary by Tiffany Gilbert, of the Los Angeles Review of Books, really captured the essence of "Station 11." "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. ... Mandel displays the impressive skill of evoking both terror and empathy. ... She has exuded talent for years. ... There is such glory in humanity, in what we, through every plague and every age, continue to create -- like this book -- and in what we are capable of sustaining."
Steven Gaynes' "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.