Station Eleven follows the storylines of four main characters. Their stories span from thirty years before the Collapse to twenty years after it. The Collapse refers to the Georgia Flu pandemic that spread around the world in a matter of weeks and wiped out most of humanity. What remains are sporadic communities where most of the inhabitants stay put and do the best they can with what they have.
… the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.
Arthur. The characters’ lives are loosely connected to one another through the well known actor, Arthur Leander. Arthur went from a quiet childhood on a small island off the coast of British Columbia to the fame and fortune of life in LA. We see snapshots of his life as he moves to the big city of Toronto, takes acting classes, becomes a well known actor, falls in love with Miranda, Elizabeth, and Lydia, who eventually become his three wives. He is a kind man, but restless. He is not happy with the mistakes he has made in his life, but doesn’t quite know what to do about it.
His first wife, Miranda, is an artist who spends a lot of her free time creating a graphic comic about a space station called Station Eleven, which plays a big part in this story. His second wife, Elizabeth, is the mother of Arthur’s only child, Tyler.
The night of Arthur’s death is where the story begins. His is on stage at the time, acting as King Lear, when he has a heart attack. Present that night is a little girl named Kirsten, who will always remember it, and a man named Jeevan who jumps up on stage to administer CPR to the 51-year-old actor. This significant event quickly becomes irrelevant as the Georgia Flu makes its way through the city of Toronto that very day and changes the world forever.
Kirsten. Kirsten doesn’t remember much about the world before the Collapse. She has vague memories of being a child actor, and of the death of Arthur Leander who was kind to her. She has always kept the comics he gave her on that last night, and loves collecting any kind of gossip/entertainment magazine she can find in abandoned houses and buildings, especially if they have anything to do with Arthur Leander’s career. Now, twenty years after the Collapse, Kirsten belongs with the Travelling Symphony as one of the actors. The Symphony travels from community to community , bringing music and entertainment to people in this new world. In one particular community, though, things aren’t what they should be, and the Symphony leaves quickly, hoping to be left alone. But, then members of their group begin to disappear. It is through Kirsten’s story that we find out the most about the world after the Collapse.
Jeevan. Jeevan had worked long enough in the entertainment industry. He longed to do something more meaningful, like become a paramedic. On the night he jumps onto the stage to help Arthur Leander during his heart attack, he walks home in the snowstorm, excited about his future. Then he gets a phone call from his friend at the hospital telling him about all the flu patients coming in that day. The hospitals are full to overflowing. He should get out of town. He heads to his brother’s apartment building with several grocery carts full of supplies, where he stays for the next few months; just the two of them. Together they watch the world fall apart on the TV news, day after day, until finally there is no more news. The TV stations sign off, the electricity goes out, the water stops running, the roads are full of abandoned cars, the city is dark and silent. Finally, their supplies run out, and Jevan is forced to leave.
Through Jeevan’s story we find out more about the lives of the children after the Collapse. The ones who never knew what the world was like before. There are schools, and the parents get together and discuss whether or not the children should even be taught about the old world. Is it important and helpful for them to learn about it, or detrimental?
Clark. Clark is Arthur’s best friend from his acting school days in Toronto. He is in Arthur’s life on and off all through the years, but the real part of his story comes during and after the flu pandemic. He is on a plane when the authorities decide to start shutting everything down to help control the spread of the virus. His plane is re-routed to Severn City airport, along with several others from other parts of the world. Then, they are just left there to fend for themselves. At first, they wait, in the hopes that someone will come rescue them, but they soon come to realize that this is it. Their new home. Unless they want to set out on their own to explore. Clark stays. His story helps us to imagine what it would be like to have to change your mindset from the before to the after.
They swore at airport management, at the TSA, at the airlines, at their useless phones, furious because fury was the last defense against understanding what the news stations were reporting. Beneath the fury was something literally unspeakable, the television news carrying an implication that no one could yet bring themselves to consider. It was possible to comprehend the scope of the outbreak, but it wasn’t possible to comprehend what it meant.
Elizabeth was also on that plane with her son, Tyler. After two years, Elizabeth and Tyler decide to leave with a religious cult that was travelling through at the time.
One thing Station Eleven does well is explore the existence and importance of art and culture before and after the apocalypse. Before the Collapse, the book is filled with characters who are actors, writers, photographers, and artists. After the Collapse, some of the people are still driven to create newspapers, libraries, museums, and, of course, the Travelling Symphony which is full of actors and musicians.
Sometimes the Travelling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed like a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it, especially at times when they had to camp between towns., when they were turned away by gunpoint from hostile places, when they were travelling in snow or rain through dangerous territory, actors and musicians carrying guns and crossbows, the horses exhaling great clouds of steam, times when they were cold and afraid and their feet were wet. Or times like now when the heat was unrelenting, July pressing down upon them and the blank walls of the forest on either side, walking by the hour and wondering if an unhinged prophet or his men might be chasing them, arguing to distract themselves from their terrible fear.
Although the characters are all connected, it is a loose connection, and it is good to keep this in mind while reading. Don’t expect any big revelations at the end of the book. By the end, you will already have figured out how everything is connected. The story ends quietly, thoughtfully, and with a glimmer of hope for the future. I highly recommend it, even for those of you who don’t usually read apocalyptic fiction. This one is different.
Get a look at some of Emily St. John’s other work on her website.
This review in the National Post loosely compares the Georgia Flu and the Ebola virus, as well as goes into more depth about the way Mandel uses art and culture in her novel.
Station Eleven is a finalist for the National Book Award this year. You can see all the finalists here.
Watch this video of people on the street telling the interviewer what they would miss in a post-apocalyptic world.
What would you miss? Would you be the type to want to settle down in one place, or would you want to travel around and explore the new world?