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.