In “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, a deadly Georgian flu wipes out an estimated 99 per cent of Earth’s population in a matter of days, ushering in a new era of pre- (or, more appropriately post-) modern living — no more electricity, air travel or antibiotics.
Twenty years later, the Great Lakes region now consists only of small, isolated communities where every stranger is a potential foe.
This is the only world for protagonist Kirsten, just 8 years old when life as we know it ended. She has, however, succeeded in living the ambition she claimed as a child, being an actor in a troupe called the Traveling Symphony, a caravan of performers who play classical music and put on Shakespeare plays around the brave new world of western Michigan.
The Symphony runs into trouble when members encounter a town of religious zealots led by the mysterious “Prophet.” They hightail it out of there, but soon members of the Symphony start disappearing.
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If “Station Eleven” contained just this plot as a continuous thread, it would make for a pretty good futuristic thriller. But Mandel is more interested in exploring the intersections and meetings among her large cast of characters both before and after the collapse.
In a nonlinear style reminiscent of David Mitchell (“Cloud Atlas”) or TV’s “Lost,” the book jumps around in time, checking on characters at several points throughout their lives.
The book juxtaposes our 21st century existence, in all its banality (“Why did we always say we were going to shoot emails?” one character wonders years later. “Why couldn’t we just say we were going to send them?”) and wonder (traveling around the country via the magic of airplanes) with the rough future, where people still feel diminished and nostalgic for what was lost.
In Mandel’s rendering, culture — both high and low — is what connects the two worlds. Technology has gradually fallen into disrepair and been abandoned, but people like Kirsten keep continuity with the past by the intangible (the words of the plays) and tangible culture they collect.
Kirsten’s best friend carries around a miniature Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek.” The title of the book comes from Kirsten’s prized possession, a pair of comic books about a scientist stuck on a remote space station trying to get back to his home.
If “Station Eleven” aims to be one of those novels that’s an all-consuming reading experience, it doesn’t quite get there. Because it jumps around so much in time, the elements of suspense aren’t given the front stage as much as they might have been, which leaves the climax feeling somewhat deflated.
Mandel’s book is dedicated to a realistic envisioning of what might happen if everyone we knew were to suddenly die. No zombies, no vampires, no nightmarish nuclear winter, just entropy and ordinary humans’ capacity for fear and resilience.
The best illustration of this comes in a section late in the novel that details the first several weeks post-incident with a group of travelers diverted and quarantined in a remote airport. The survivors raid the concourse’s Mexican restaurant for food and the gift shop for clean clothes and scented candles to light the bathrooms. They form friendships, teach each other their languages, settle into jobs like shoveling and hunting. Just in view outside the windows sits a ghost plane whose passengers never disembarked.
At other times, the selective nature of Mandel’s new civilization raises plausibility questions. If there are people who can remember how to play Beethoven symphonies, why haven’t any former engineers been able to rig up an electrical generator, or why couldn’t pharmacists scrape together some new doses of medicine? (If 1 percent of the country’s population were left, they would be similar in number to the citizens of the early United States.)
None of these issues is enough to break the book’s spell completely, though.
The Shakespeare connection also draws a parallel to the traveling acting companies of the Bard’s time. Will’s Globe Theater was itself shut down for whole seasons because of plague. The hyper-technological now may be just a brief stage of human history, Mandel seems to say, but some things last longer. Shakespeare, for one — as the famous quote has it, “A man for all time.”
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (336 pages; Alfred A. Knopf; $24.95)