Nowadays we are very concerned about The End. The apocalypse is nothing new in American culture, but it has taken on a new fervor of late. The genre has exploded over the last decade from books, TV, movies and graphic novels. Society is usually wiped out by a pandemic, war, zombies and even the rapture (in the religious version of doomsday). The focus is either how the event happened or on those who survived the aftermath.
As with the vampire craze, I think the popularity of the genre is on the downward slope (but never gone!). With over-saturation, people get bored. There is just so much of the genre that it’s hard to get a fresh perspective. I went into Station Eleven with this fear. Will the novel be able to rise above the same ol’ tricks of the genre?
Yes, a resounding yes.
“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (pg. 57)
One of the unique aspects of the novel is that the central character doesn’t even live to see the Georgia Flu. On Day One, as the flu starts to spread to different countries, Arthur Leander dies on stage while performing his dream role, King Lear. The novel then concentrates on how Arthur’s life and death affect the different characters as they face this new world.
In Station Eleven there are a few elements that are similar to most apocalyptic tales: Namely, the need for survival and how the new world becomes a dangerous place due to lack of electricity, modern medicine and basic necessities. Also there is a prophet… because why not (there is always a prophet).
Where Station Eleven stands apart is the beauty it is able to extract, not only from the prose but from the new world, from the setting. The quote above is from Kristen who was eight when the Flu hits. Instead of merely surviving she chooses to tour with the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare in different settlements. The motto on their banner is ‘Survival is Insufficient,’ from the Star Trek: Voyager television series (probably one of the only Sci-fi moments in the novel).
In a devastating world beauty still matters.
“A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” (pg.42)
I don’t want to be misleading, the novel can be very bleak and sometimes downright depressing. Unless it’s Shaun of the Dead the subject matter in this genre is going to be tough. I applaud Mandel for finding poetry and elegance in an otherwise morbid atmosphere.
This book probably won’t be for the hard-core fans of the genre. I wouldn’t even call this book Sci-fi (as it’s labeled in the library). Half the book is pre-pandemic years and centers around a Hollywood actor. I feel like the title is also misleading as Station Eleven gives a different impression of what the novel is about. The title comes from a pair of comic books that Kristen carries with her about a space station. The comic book story parallels what’s going on in the novel, but it might have been confusing to name the novel after them.
What makes Station Eleven a success (and wildly popular) is that Mandel is able to marry highbrow and lowbrow and produce a captivating page-turner. The book appeals to all types of readers and has a good chance of standing the test of time. Sometimes I worry about giving an suggestion and over-hyping a book. I never want to give expectation that can’t be met, but I sincerely believe Station Eleven is worth your time. Even if it ends up not being your cup of tea, the writing is beautiful. And I think we all could use some beauty in our lives, even in dark times
In the Margins:
- At least there weren’t Zombies? Right? This book ended on hope, the people over in The Walking Dead are just screwed.
- A lot of talk about the apocalyptic genre in this review. If this is your jam, might I suggest Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh with a all-star cast. I love this movie… it might have made me slightly germaphobe for a few months, but it’s still one of the best in the genre.
- Since it’s December I’m calling it: This was the best book I read this year.
- Break out your Princess Bride DVD! Our next book is As You Wish by Cary Elwes.