My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Survival is not enough.”
These are the words painted on the side of the Symphony’s wagon and tattooed on the arm of one of the two primary protagonists of Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel. The tattooed girl is Kirsten, an actress in her late 20s who is our primary guide to life in the 20 years after the “Georgia Flu” has wiped out 99% of humanity.
The other protagonist, our guide to the time before, is Arthur Leander, a big name movie star who dies on stage (literally) during a performance of Lear the night the pandemic actually hits. In all, the novel covers some 50+ years (we have a third character, a minor protagonist named Jeevan, who is our liminal viewpoint – covering the first 100 days or so).
What makes it all work, though, is Mandel’s story-telling. She bounces between times and viewpoints, past and present tense, with ease and clarity. It never feels forced or out of place. Additionally, she uses two different stories within her story to really fill in the world. The first is Shakespeare. The Symphony, as well as being an actual symphony, also performs the works of The Bard, acting as traveling minstrels in the new world. They have a circuit along the upper Lake Michigan coast, whcih they cross and recross as time goes on. But Shakespeare himself is an interesting touchstone here, having survived the plague in his lifetime, another “world ending” event. Mandel uses his works as mirrors of the present point of her story, particularly Lear, which shows up repeatedly. We also get Midsummer Night’s Dream and a mention of Romeo and Juliet, all at appropriate times.
The other story within is the namesake of the novel. Throughout the story we get glimpses (and later on huge patches) of a comic book written and illustrated by Leander’s first wife, Miranda, called Station Eleven. The comic (only the first two volumes are ever produced) becomes first a running commentary on the world before and then an example for the people of the world after to follow. In this sense, Mandel seems to be pulling from a couple of literary sources, most specifically Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin which uses a similar device.