I’ve hardly been hiding the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of YA fiction. Call me crazy but as a fucking adult I tend to prefer fiction that actually tries to challenge me. However, as I’m also the kind of fucking pathetic individual who is always swayed by popular opinion, I can’t seem to stop giving it a go when a book proves popular enough. Back in 2014, George RR Martin, you’ve probably heard of him, gave Station Eleven his seal of approval so I figured ‘why the fuck not’. Then, unsurprisingly, the book sat at the bottom of my TBR pile looking beautiful whilst I couldn’t give a shit about opening it’s pages. Until the day when my increasing guilt proved too much and I gave in. I’d just read a supposedly ‘revolutionary’ YA novel that was the biggest load of shit I’d ever read. It’s safe to say my hopes about this one weren’t high.
Emily St John Mandel’s fourth novel starts in dramatic fashion with the death of an actor, Arthur Leander, whilst on stage playing King Lear. There is barely enough time to process the tragic event before the world finds itself in the midst of a global crisis. A severe strain of flu, the Georgia flu, is quickly spreading throughout the human world and those infected are beyond medical help. Within weeks about 99% of humanity has been wiped out and the rest are left alone in the wilderness.
Mandel’s narrative leaps between the events preceding the pandemic right up to the 20thyear after humanity fell and, even in death, Arthur is constantly hovering over the action. The modern day chapters give us insight into the actor’s life before his final performance; mainly focusing on his troubled marriages and desire to discover who he really is. We meet his oldest friend, Clark, and some of his past loves, most importantly Miranda, an art school graduate who has been working on the ‘Dr Eleven’ comic book for some years. The section of the narrative revolving around Arthur’s history is truly engaging and Mandel shows great insight into human nature and relationships.
Arthur is kept relevant even 20 years after the flu decimates humanity thanks to actress, Kirsten Raymonde, who was part of the infamous King Lear production at the age of 8. She remembers little of her past life but obsessively searches for any mention of Arthur that survived the destruction of society. Now in her late 20s, Kirsten is part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel around the country performing Shakespeare. The Symphony’s motto is an obscure quote from Star Trekthat tells us “Survival is insufficient” and they do what they can to ensure art thrives in the desolate landscape that has arisen.
That is what Mandel’s novel is all about when it comes down to it. Choosing to avoid the usual traps of post-apocalyptic literature, she ignores the years directly following the crisis and picks up years down the line. The scenes of chaos, looting and violence that one would normally see are replaced with images of humans trying to regain their civilization. Mandel’s novel isn’t one of desperation and despair but one of hope. The idea that human decency can survive and civilization will endure if life remains.
It’s an approach that has gained Mandel a lot of respect and is undeniably refreshing in a sea of dystopian fiction. However, I can’t help but feel that there is something naïve about her approach. As someone who is about as jaded as you can be with this fucking genre, I appreciate that Mandel wanted to avoid copying every other YA author out there but there is something weird about the complete lack of danger within her created society. What was obviously meant to be a message of hope that humanity, and with it art, can survive even the bleakest times just feels fucking childish.
Obviously, danger and violence are implied within the novel but it is as hidden as Mandel can manage. Kirsten was supposedly too traumatised during the year directly after the flu hit to remember anything about it. This seems like a fucking huge cop out to me: after all, what is the good of showing hope winning out in the end if there is no real sense of hopelessness? It’s the same over-simplified, fairy tale world of YA fiction that we have seen so many times before. Let’s not be afraid to shake things up and show teenagers how shitty humanity can be.
We live in a world where violence is the answer to everything and it can rear it’s ugly head with only the slightest provocation. There is something incredibly flawed in Mandel’s assumption that there would be such a small amount of tension and danger within the 1% of humanity that survived the ‘plague’. Maybe I’m just cynical but the message of ‘things will be okay as long as people keep performing Shakespeare’ is kind of laughable. I have hope that humanity would win out in the end but not in Mandel’s rose-tinted manner.
However, Station Eleven was still a joy to read because Mandel, despite her overly positive approach, is an incredibly talented writer. Her prose is fucking beautiful and she manages to create a dream-like atmosphere that counters its post-apocalyptic brothers and sisters. The novel is refreshing thanks to its stunning visuals and extremely light in tone. Although, for a book that has been billed as part mystery, Mandel leaves so many fucking signposts all over the place that the end reveals aren’t a shock to anybody. Still the journey there is pleasant enough: it’s the kind of book you can easily get lost in.
And not just because of all of the narrative strands Mandel is tying together. To be fair, Mandel handles all of the interweaving storylines with great skill. It’s just a shame that it can’t quite make up for the overlying sense of improbability that surrounds everything. It’s all so fucking coincidental and you need to suspend nearly all of your disbelief. The fact that all of the narratives come back to Arthur even after everything (for instance, that Kirsten forgets her entire family but remembers a man who had such a small impact on her life) is a teeny bit convoluted. All the links are just fucking too in-your-face to seem realistic.
I was excited by the thought of an original post-apocalyptic novel but found Station Elevenstill wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. There were too many fucking cop-outs and simplifications for my liking. As much as I want an escape from the norm, I’m just too old-fashioned and prefer my dystopians to be fucking horrible. Enough of this, ‘everything works out if we keep art alive’ hippy bullshit.