By: Emily St. John Mandel
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city of Toronto, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent cult and a man proclaiming himself to the Prophet. And as the story moves back and forth in time, readers experience the vividly depicted life before and after the pandemic all while learning the strange twist of fate that connects them all.
Advice to authors who want to make the opening of their book interesting, starting with a man having a heart attack is a pretty good way to go. Unfortunately, as someone who is not a big fan of Shakespeare, the first few chapters were difficult to get into because so much of it revolved around the characters performing or practicing lines from King Lear and Hamlet.
I also tend to be wary of books where I feel like I need to make a list of characters in the first 3 chapters. The need to make a list doesn’t just come from my complete lack of name retention but rather that many members of the Traveling Symphony are referred to simply by the instrument they play like “the sixth guitar” and “the clarinet.” It was honestly absurd how many characters didn’t have a real name, and it took a while for me to realize that anyone without a true first name just wasn’t important. You’d think the members of the Traveling Symphony would be the most important characters but really, they are the side attraction to the other characters like Clark, Jeevan, and Miranda. Kirsten, who is a member of the symphony, is the character I originally thought of as the protagonist but she’s mainly used as a thread to tie those other characters together.
The narrative flips back and forth between the cult reality of 20 years post-collapse and the years before the collapse. As soon as we flip back for the first time, I found the story was easy to digest mostly because everyone had a regular name and the writing seemed more coherent.
Kirsten’s obsession with Arthur Leander is the setup for why we spend the bulk of the book focused on his life and hearing from the perspectives of the people who were closest to him. We learn about how he became famous and how those around him viewed his choices. Those flashbacks to the time before the collapse or right after were far more interesting to me than the “present” day 20 years later. I realized halfway through the book that the reason perhaps that the past and present seem so jarring is because usually in a tale like this we would see the main character, Kirsten, before and after the pandemic. A then and now if you will. But the stories of the past not only aren’t from Kirsten’s perspective but are things she never could have known. The life of Arthur Leander and the people in his life. She only knows what she read in magazines or books rather than the events as they truly unfolded, and I think this adds a nice dynamic to the story. Sadly it was also great that Kirsten wasn’t the main focus of the book because I wasn’t really a fan of her. I felt bad for her, but I didn’t connect with her.
We spend so much more time in the past instead of the “now” which honestly detracts from the danger Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony face from The Prophet. In the beginning, it seems like the story is going to be about their struggles with a band of cultists but honestly so little of the book centers on that at all. It felt anticlimactic. This is one of those stories where I felt like the blurb on the back of the book did not do the plot justice. It was close but not quite right because I felt it was framed as a post-apocalyptic thriller but in execution, it is just dystopian fiction. And that’s okay! I like what the story turned out to be! I just believe the marketing department was trying to hook people with the promise of a cult and that was somewhat misleading.
The fall of civilization was the most fascinating part for me and the way the uninfected find small ways to rebuild society and form communities was surprisingly hopeful. That forming of community through adversity was my favorite part of The Stand. Though unlike in King’s work, there are no people who are immune to the virus in Station Eleven. Those who survive are simply people who were lucky enough not to get infected and that is even more terrifying than a justification that those left expressed some sort of rare mutation.
Also, Station Eleven is revealed to be a comic book within the story. So, a story within a story. I enjoy a narrative with a book that ties people together like in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Though despite the novel’s namesake, we really don’t learn much about the story of the comic and glean a cursory understanding of it from flashes here or there. “Station Eleven” is the creation of Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife, who worked on the project in secret and does it for her own pleasure, not because she cares to ever publish it. She mirrors moments of her life in the story so those reading it experiences her profound loneliness but also her sense of escapism. She lives more in her make-believe world than she does in real life which could be said for actors as well who spend their careers playing different roles. It is noted several times in the book that Arthur always seems like he’s acting likely because actors so rarely get moments to just be themselves. Readers become disenchanted with Arthur as a person in a way Kirsten never will because she collects fragments and memories that are more the idea of Arthur than who he was as a man. Kirsten herself lives for the Traveling Symphony and acting is all she wants to do.
One of the aspects I enjoy most about this novel is how the characters are connected in unexpected ways. Jeevan sits in the audience the night Arthur dies on stage and is the one who attempts CPR to save Arthur’s life. Ironically, it turns out Jeevan also used to be the paparazzi that followed Artur around when he was still married to Miranda. And then there’s Clark who is Arthur’s best friend and is present the night of an ill-fated dinner party right before Arthur and Miranda got divorced. Clark ultimately meets Kirsten later after the collapse and they bond over their memory of the dead actor. It was truly a great way to frame a story and it made the narrative more meaningful than the sense of following random people.
The story is well written, so I don’t know what the difficulty is in my reading this. Perhaps it feels too personal now after making it through a pandemic myself. It just hits too close to home because when COVID first broke out, so many people were talking about it like it was going to kill off a huge percentage of the world. Like a plague which fortunately didn’t come to pass though sadly we lost many to it and still are. But this book represents a future where a virus like COVID was even worse and had a 100% mortality rate for those who encounter it. Here it’s called the Georgia Flu. And I should note that this story was published in 2014 so COVID was still 5 years away. I wonder if Mandel felt spooked by her own sort of premonition in 2020. All the cases filling up the hospitals rapidly and overcrowding. The deaths of doctors were exposed to the first patients.
It’s a story that doesn’t seem so entertaining when, as a reader, you know how close we are to a reality like this. I would still recommend everyone read it at least once though. Might offer a different perspective into just how lucky we all really are.
Overall rating: 4