To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Station Eleven’ review: art in the apocalypse

“Station Eleven” was initially released in 2014, and it was adapted into a miniseries in 2021. Nevertheless, I did not read it until 2024, and I am glad I did not first encounter it at the peak of its popularity. For all its emphasis on hope and survival, the future “Station Eleven” speculates about, in which a pandemic known as the “Georgia Flu” kills nearly all of the earth’s population, is genuinely scary. If I had read it prior to the actual pandemic, I can only imagine the paranoia I would have felt once news of COVID-19 first began spreading. I am still thinking about the book’s description of a terrified CNN anchor announcing that the network will be “temporarily suspending broadcast operations” so “all of our employees may be with their families,” only for the channel to never return. As someone who became a little addicted to cable news during the pandemic, I know that “temporary” sign-off would have sent me spiraling.

However, the book is more than just a novel about a disease. In “Station Eleven,” author Emily St. John Mandel takes the reader through a non-linear timeline with an eye toward the apocalyptic, always wondering what exactly we would miss should the world end tomorrow. The story is told from the points of view of five different characters, all of whom have some connection to the famous actor Arthur Leander, who died on the day that the book’s pandemic-induced apocalypse began. Mandel traces the events leading up to both Arthur’s and society’s collapse and seeks to understand what it means to live in the aftermath of disaster, ultimately finding that our relationships with other people are not only an asset that helps us survive the worst, but they are also the reason to fight for survival.

In the parts of the book that follow Kirsten, a former child actress who came of age during the pandemic and finds herself joining the Traveling Symphony, Mandel effectively demonstrates the value of connection. The Traveling Symphony, a theater troupe and orchestra in the form of a caravan, is the heart of the book. The group goes from town to town (although “town” is probably a strong word for what some of these post-apocalyptic settlements are), bringing performances of nearly-forgotten plays and songs to the people living in them. The Symphony members fight, form friendships and fall in love, engaging in those familiar pre-collapse dynamics so easily that at times, it feels like they could be any other group of artists on tour.

However, they are so much more than that. They refuse to detach from humanity or to find safety in an insular enclave. As part of the Symphony, Kirsten meets more new people than any other character in the novel. She finds meaning in expanding her circle with every performance, even if what she is doing is dangerous. Sometimes, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why refuse to keep to yourself when the next person you meet might be carrying a disease that could kill you?” That question is relevant even outside of an apocalyptic context, although it has to be translated a bit. What Mandel is really asking us to wonder is, “Why trust anyone who can hurt us?” Mandel answers that question in showing the joy that the Symphony brings to both its members and its audiences. We have to put ourselves at the mercy of others because we need each other. We can survive on our own, but it is a half life. Relationships are everything, even though they make us vulnerable. In Mandel’s words, “What made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy.”

I was amazed by the way that Mandel delivered this message so successfully through the art of theater, deliberately putting her text in conversation with the works of William Shakespeare, which is one of the reasons I had been so eager to read this book in the first place. I have developed a bit of a Shakespeare obsession over the years, and I have taken great enjoyment in books like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and M.L. Rio’s “If We Were Villains,” which rely heavily on Shakespeare references and tie them closely to the plot. In “Station Eleven,” Shakespeare is very present. Arthur Leander, the actor all of the main characters are somehow connected to, died in the middle of a production of King Lear. The Traveling Symphony primarily performs Shakespeare’s plays, bringing audiences to tears as they experience a kind of art they once thought was lost.

There is obviously quite a bit of Shakespeare in this book, but unlike in other Shakespeare-heavy books I have read and loved, Shakespeare was more relevant as a stand-in for art itself than he was as a writer. Mandel could have replaced him and all the references to his works with references to some other famous and prolific playwright, but it is hard to find a comparable example to William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is referenced frequently throughout the text, Mandel does not engage very directly with the contents of his plays. I felt this was a missed opportunity for parallels to Shakespeare’s tragedies, which deal so heavily with loss. However, for Mandel, Shakespeare was not important because of his name; he was important because he was an artist. During his lifetime, Arthur Leander was driven by his desire to be an artist himself, giving up financial stability because he wanted to pursue a career where he would feel something. During the apocalypse, Kirsten and the rest of the Traveling Symphony borrow a line from “Star Trek” to explain why they kept engaging in theater during the end of the world: “Because survival is insufficient.” Kirsten tattoos those words on herself, and the symphony paints them on all of their caravan cars. Art brings life meaning, and like connection, it is worth taking a risk for. Mandel is writing for an audience in a world where arts and humanities are frequently overlooked and dismissed, so I think it’s especially necessary that she emphasizes the importance of art throughout her novel. As Mandel writes about the Symphony’s performances, “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”

I am also still bothered by one component of the book: the relationship between Jeevan and Frank. (SPOILERS AHEAD) For a book that is heavily focused on the necessity of relationships and connection, I found the choices Jeevan made about his brother to be bizarre and off-theme. Jeevan is one of the five characters the book follows, a former paparazzo who is an EMT-in-training when the apocalypse hits. Frank, his brother, is a journalist who was shot while covering the war in Afghanistan, and is now in a wheelchair. Jeevan says he loves his brother, and he certainly acts like it in the early parts of the novel, bringing seven full shopping carts of essentials to Frank’s apartment in hopes of riding out the apocalypse together. However, after less than two months, it becomes apparent that the Georgia Flu will not be going away, and with supplies running low, it will become impossible to stay in the safety of the apartment. Frank insists that Jeevan needs to leave, but Jeevan insists he will not leave without his brother. Frank then says he will commit suicide, as it would be impossible for him to survive outside.

If Jeevan argues with him about this decision, it is certainly not depicted on the page. Two weeks after their conversation, Jeevan watches people out the window while Frank swallows pills in his bedroom. The scene is depicted so callously from Jeevan’s point of view, I almost felt like I had missed something. Did Jeevan just … let his brother end his own life without so much as putting up a fight about it? It felt so selfish and strange. The book would have been better had Mandel not even given Jeevan a brother, since the way she handled their relationship diminished the message of the book, and I would not be surprised to learn that disabled readers found it offensive.

Furthermore, having been through a pandemic myself, I find that one of the pieces of the book that fails to hold up is the issue of how the virus works. Mandel is very effective at frightening the reader, but I also could not help but wonder how realistic the virus she depicted was. Mandel writes, “You get exposed to this, you’re sick within hours.” The victims then die within days. Having now lived through a (less deadly) pandemic myself, I wonder if “Station Eleven’s” virus would have even spread well. Unlike coronavirus, there is no several-day period when a person is asymptomatic but still infectious. The victims die extremely quickly after their symptoms begin, and as far as any of the characters in the book are aware, the fatality rate is 100%. Would a virus like that even have much of a chance to circulate? It debilitates its carriers almost immediately, whereas coronavirus was so dangerous precisely because of the time it took for its victims to even know that they were sick. I admit that I am no epidemiologist, but my questions about the logistics of the virus still took me out of the moment while I was reading. Although “Station Eleven” was published at a time when the average person would not have known much about pandemics, I expect that in the post-COVID era, many of the book’s readers will be knowledgeable enough to have similar problems with this element of the novel.

I will say that despite these issues, I generally enjoyed “Station Eleven” and would highly recommend it. Although some readers find its non-linear, multi-POV technique to be annoying, I happen to love it when books follow several different characters and change points of view nearly every chapter. I think it is a great way to show the beauty of interconnectedness and coincidence, and it also gives the novel the opportunity for variety that it would not have if it just followed one character. It is hard for me to believe that some people found this novel dull, because I found myself deeply invested in all of the different plotlines, even the ones from before the apocalypse. I cared about the characters and wanted to know what would happen to them. Not to mention, the events of the book were genuinely interesting. I didn’t even get the chance to talk about the cult (yes, cult!) in this review. Overall, I would encourage anyone with an interest in apocalyptic fiction to read “Station Eleven,” but I would also say that anyone who likes books with large casts of intertwined characters (such as Fredrik Backman’s “Anxious People” or Carolyn Huynh’s “The Fortunes of Jaded Women”) would love this book too. It is extremely well-written and will leave you thinking about it well after you finish the last page.

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