If you haven’t yet read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, I’m kind of jealous of you. Because that means that you have the opportunity to experience this book for the first time while I can only reread and revisit it. This story was that good to me. It took me almost three weeks to read it. Usually when I read at that pace, it’s because my life is either very busy or I’m only semi-interested in the book I’m reading. In this case, it was a deliberate choice. I wanted to savor it.
First, I’ll give you a brief no-spoilers description of the story. In the not so far off future, a deadly flu pandemic has hit Earth, spreading at a rapid pace and wiping out 99% of the population within days. It’s hysteria as people try to flee the cities, and afterwards, it’s devastation. The infrastructure that developed nations have come to depend upon – energy, communication, medical, manufacturing, etc. – has crumbled. Most of those who survive the deadly flu have lost everyone they love, but there’s no time to grieve. The world is now a dangerous place, and there’s only time to survive…
And herein lies one of the most magical elements of this story: The Traveling Symphony. Twenty years after the pandemic, a small group of actors and musicians travel to communities and perform Shakespeare and play concerts. On the side of their caravan are these words: “Because survival is insufficient.”
Oh, wow. It’s a powerful statement and so very true. In my first blog entry, I talked about the importance of stories within the context of the current social and political climate. Station Eleven highlights how important they are for our soul. Through storytelling, we connect with each other. We feel. We remember. We breathe life into dark, hopeless situations.
Because survival is insufficient.
This book follows several characters, and it cuts between the present (twenty years post-pandemic) and the past (years before the pandemic and also the days when the pandemic hit). In the present story line, we primarily follow Kirsten, a twenty-something actress with the Traveling Symphony. Early in the story, the Traveling Symphony gets into some trouble when they visit a previously friendly community and discover that it has been taken over by a “prophet” (aka cult leader). This cult leader has some interesting ties to Kirsten’s past.
Normally I prefer books and movies that unfold chronologically, but in this case, I feel like the intercutting between the past and the present made each timeline more effective. The juxtaposition of normal day-to-day living against the post-pandemic situation gave more importance to the moments that characters share with one another as the world is crumbling and later as society is limping along. Station Eleven is a tapestry of threads weaving together the fragility of life.
The intercutting also emphasized the things we take for granted right now, today. You want to eat? Well, post-pandemic, go hunting with a knife or a spear. You want to bathe? Find a river. You want to talk to your friend? Sorry, you can’t because there is no phone, no email, no United States Postal Service.
Of course it’s very important to acknowledge that not everyone on this planet has those kinds of luxuries right now, and if we don’t do a better job of taking care of the planet, someday no one will have those kind of luxuries. But right now, the truth is I do. I am one of the luckiest of the lucky ones. I can turn a knob and thirty seconds later, I’m standing under a hot shower. Reading Station Eleven made me appreciate some of these simple things more. Because when it comes down to it, those of us fortunate enough to experience these things will be rare species in the history books. We are alive during a small snapshot in time where we have comforts beyond the bare necessities. This earth is old, but our comforts are new. And if we don’t begin making wiser choices about how we take care of the planet, those that come after us will not have these luxuries.
Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic book with prose that is poetic, haunting, and beautiful. However, the beauty in the writing doesn’t detract from the power of how awful this scenario would be. Mandel’s writing is full of atmosphere, metaphor, and imagery that at times caused me to lower the book and just think about it…. like the image of rusted out cars lined up along freeways and highways, still there twenty years after the pandemic – the skeletons of those who tried to flee the city inside the cars. The story also caused me to put a lot of thought into what I would do if I were one of the few survivors of a pandemic. The book hasn’t turned me into a total survivalist, but I did decide to buy a solar powered flashlight. And I did a little reading on what types of food have basically indefinite shelf lives. (Tips: white rice and honey and hard alcohol are all good contenders. So while you’re lamenting the end of the world, you can get totally drunk!)
Station Eleven is dark and sad, and yet it’s hopeful too. It reminds us of what’s important, and one of those things is art and expression. I believe that if humans are cast into utter darkness, the light will always find a way to emerge… This book demonstrates that. Because survival is insufficient.
If you’ve read Station Eleven, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.