“Because survival is insufficient.” This is the worthy theme that runs through Emily St. John Mandel’s eclectic Station Eleven, a literary cross between Stephen King’s The Stand and J.J. Abram’s Lost.
The quote comes from an episode of Star Trek Voyager. In Station Eleven, the words are painted on the lead caravan of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and Shakespearean actors performing art in the apocalypse twenty years after a deadly flu killed 99% of the world’s population. A similar pandemic all but ended civilization in The Stand, and there are other parallels as well. King (yes, King) and Mandel are both eloquent writers. (One of my favorite lines in The Stand: “It was as if his face was held together by a number of unseen bolts and each of them had suddenly been loosened a turn and a half.” One of my favorite lines in Station Eleven: when Mandel describes a dog as “a cross between a fox and a cloud.”) Both books use excerpts from various media—like newscasts and interviews—to show aspects of what was lost when the flu struck. Both rotate between the points of view of several characters. And both have messianic villains. But Station Eleven is shorter (thankfully; my main critique of The Stand was that it’s about 800 pages too long), even though Mandel frequently jumps between the past and present. This element is what reminded me of Lost. Throughout the narrative, Station Eleven pauses to investigate the backstory of one character or another, some of whom don’t survive the flu. At first, many of these tangents seem unrelated, but the threads tighten as we learn how the protagonists are all connected in some way, even if only by an object (like a paperweight, or a dystopian comic book called “Station Eleven”).
The pacing suffers as a result. There are too many plotlines for any sense of urgency, and what passes for the climax is just a brief skirmish by the side of the road. Sometimes it feels like Mandel wrote separate short stories and then decided how to intersperse them.
Yet Station Eleven still worked for me, mostly because the characters are generally likable, and Mandel does an excellent job of having them provide multiple answers to the question posed by her theme (i.e., if survival isn’t sufficient, what is?). For the Prophet, the answer is spreading his (callous, self-serving) message of rebirth. For Kirsten, it’s learning about the frivolities and luxuries of the past she can barely remember. For Clark, it’s preserving such memories in his Museum of Civilization. Few of these survivors are fully happy, but few of the pre-flu characters are either. (Arthur, a world-famous actor who has it all and wants none of it, is the most obvious—and clichéd—example.) The characters who find the most contentment do so in simple passions, be it family or a labor of love.
And there’s probably something to that. Survival is insufficient. But whatever makes your life enough doesn’t have to be complicated.