Station Eleven, Emily St.John Mandel

The greatest dystopian novels (Brave New World, 1984, Children of Men, The Road, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and  Madd Adam series) are timeless as they have a realistic underlining current. They resemble our world. The people in them could easily be us. Station Eleven (2014) is another novel to add to that list of novels that turn the mirror on humanity.

It is Year 20.

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more orchestra lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years.

This is a novel that gives us the end of the world as we know it. In this world a small band of artists-singers, musicians, actors- have banded together to travel a route through the desolate remains of civilisation. Each settlement- hamlets of people thrown together after the plague- is granted an audience with the troupe. On the bill, only Shakespeare. 

No more countries, all borders unmanned. 

The novel is deeply moving. The years of memories laying wasted. The small traces of hate and ignorance driving some of the survivors. But there is light here. One of the layers of stories takes us into the world of three time divorced actor, Arthur. The night before the beginning of the end, he dies on stage. As King Lear he falls to the stage, dead. A man in the audience rises and attempts CPR. One man dies; another gets to see the end of the world. In the cast, a child actor. Now twenty years later, she is one of the players in the Travelling Symphony. She does not remember how she got the scar across her face, but she does remember Arthur’s body limp on stage. This is a novel of memories. Some to be forgotten, others to be treasured. 

No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pick up. 

Arthur’s only true friend hears the news of the death, he moves quickly and heads to Toronto. He is on the last flight out of New York. As the world collapses, a giant black hole consuming itself, he is locked in an airport. Stuck, he begins collating a museum of useless items. This Museum of Civilisation, in this second dark age, a darkly comic feature of the novel. He sends his days curating and providing tours. Drivers licences, credit cards, passports, iPads, iPhones, laptops, all on display. He becomes know around the survivors and stories filter through the trade routes of this museum of the useless.

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expression of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

The group travels the same route, performing to people that they get to know. Each ‘year’ returning, changes, dramatic and otherwise are noted. In one place the people are particularly toxic. A prophet proclaims he is the light. As noted by Jeevan (one of six characters entwined), there’s been a few people call themselves that. The prophet claims he has been wronged by the group. He hunts them down until a final confrontation. 

This is a richly textured novel. The heart and warmth of the novel is profound, so to its hurt and pain. Every character has lost something. Whether it is social media, or a family and friends, the question of what to remember and teach to the young survivors is a compelling element of the novel. The style flows so easily; time and place are important as Mandel takes you into Arthur’s world. As someone who dies on the night the plague is released on North America, his influence is one of the striking features. The Hollywood bubble shown is darkly contrasted with the post-plague world. One of the questions is, which world would you prefer?

I read this in just three days. I wish I had written this. While comparing novels is not my way, and perhaps this won’t be a 1984 or Brave New World, maybe no one else in the world will ever read (much like the graphic novel that recurs throughout the novel) this; perhaps the novel will be forgotten in years to come. None of that matters, as I got to read this and love it. I will remember this novel. 

Why study Shakespeare?

The monotone voice is mine. The stumbling sentences, mumbled.

My first experience with Shakespeare.

My English teachers at High School tried hard. They really did. They would allocate speaking roles. The next day the lead would be away. Another round of allocating some one in the lead would drop someone else it to. The next day, they too would be absent. This would begin a pattern. There would be an absolute struggle of a class reading from the script aloud.

Why should Shakespeare be compulsory?

Is the only reason we study Shakespeare is because we have to?

The simple beauty of the language? The insight in humanity? The profound poetic power? The provocative and perceptive use of character? The representation of humans in Shakespeare is timeless, right?

Then, why make it compulsory? The quality of a Shakespearean play is abundant. In my opinion it should not be compulsory. The subjective quality of his drama and poetry is worthy of study as it is provocative and evocative. If education can be boiled now to one thing, it is to challenge. There are many other writers, novelists, poets, film makers…that will challenge young people.

Shakespeare’s plays are relevant in the 21st century, so much that there is no need to make it compulsory.

The first thing I reinforce when approaching Shakespeare: it was written to be preformed. It is not a stagnant text, instead, it is meant to be three dimensional, an experience of the mind, the eyes and ears. It is multisensory. The words must be made to come alive.

For over a decade Shakespeare has been a compulsory part of Stage Five (years 9 and 10) English. 14 to 16 years olds must study Shakespeare. Why? Why is Shakespeare revered above all other writers? What impact does this have on how Shakespeare is taught in year 7 and 8 and later, in year 11 and 12?

Some background:

All students must study English. In my region in 2012 4162 students selected Advanced or Standard English. About 38% selected Advance English.

At the highest level of secondary literature studies there are still five Shakespearean plays listed as options. You must study a Shakespeare if you study the Advanced course.

In the Common Content Area of Study, ‘Belonging’, As You Like It, is an option. While in other sections of the Advanced Course King Richard III, Hamlet and Julius Caesar are options. While the ultimate English literature course available in NSW, Extension English has one: Twelfth Night.

The first issue here is if you select As You Like It, effectively your students will compose a response based upon the script and other related texts. This will be worth 15 marks. The other options, a comparative question for Richard III (20 marks), a critical study of Hamlet (20 marks) and JC as the basis of a response with other related texts (20 marks). The position of Twelfth Night is also within a grander idea of ‘Language and Gender’, again allowing students to respond to the Shakespearean script and other texts. Depending on your students, 5 less marks for a question on Shakespeare could be a big difference. Effectively, four out of the five Shakespearean dramas veer away from a ‘traditional’ extended critique of the play. Yes, you still must ‘know’ the text, but within the well defined descriptors prepared by the Board. How might this effect how to study Shakespearean drama?

Next post: Teaching Shakespeare in years 7 and 8…