Station Eleven was the best book I read in 2014.
I don't mean that to say that it was, hands down, definitively, the best book published in 2014. There are so many books published in any given year (especially with increased access to self-publishing), and just not enough time to read them all. Maybe someday I will find something from this year to top Station Eleven.
But it will be tough. Emily St. John Mandel's novel about a world that has been destroyed by the outbreak of something called the Georgia Flu darts forward and backward in time in ways that are mesmerizing. It uses the end of the world as a literal Ground Zero, as something that serves as the center of the novel, but not as the only thing present.
What's key here, I think, is that Mandel doesn't dwell on the apocalypse. By the time she finally gets around to outlining it, she's spent so long detailing the world of 20 years hence (when the few remaining survivors of humanity struggle to hang onto civilization) and a few years prior (when a famous actor slowly succumbs to the rot of fame) that you genuinely feel for the billions upon billions who are dying, instead of thinking of them as statistics.
Here are five things Station Eleven does that will stick with me forever.
1) Mandel's writing is hypnotic and beautiful
Not everybody is into beautiful prose for the sake of having beautiful prose. And Mandel is a skillful plotter and storyteller (see below). But when I think about this book, I think about all of the times she floored me with a single phrase, description, or line of dialogue.
In particular, I love a chapter that comes late in the book's first section, which simply details all of the things that have disappeared with the loss of civilization, under the heading "AN INCOMPLETE LIST."
"No more diving into chlorinated pools of water lit green from below. No more ballgames played out under floodlights. No more porch 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."
Each image is perfectly chosen, with a poet's command of language. And, furthermore, they add up to something incredibly mournful. So many books about the end of the world are a kind of celebration of the idea, a slightly thrilled meditation on what it would be to live in the aftermath. Mandel always has one eye on how living in that world would be like constantly walking through an endless obituary.
2) The story is great, too
Broadly speaking, Station Eleven is a mystery novel. I don't mean this in the sense that there's a crime and a criminal that must be puzzled out. I mean it, instead, in the sense that there are questions Mandel sets up about her world, and then she gives you rich, satisfying answers to nearly all of them. (She leaves a handful dangling, because that's how life works, but none of the major ones are left unanswered.)
In particular, I was moved by a section where a character we've met primarily in the past finally catches up to readers in the future, after the end of the world. It's like unexpectedly seeing an old friend in the last place you'd expect them, and Mandel lends it its full gravity.
This can all be just a little bit convenient — particularly the identity of the book's chief antagonist — but no matter. That minor quibble is worth the novel's overall stark beauty.
3) The book feels eminently realistic for something so obviously imaginary
The center of many apocalyptic novels is the moment when everything ends. But Mandel is less interested in the "why" of the end — it's just a super-bug that ravages humanity at a devastating rate — and more about the "how" of what might actually happen.
The depiction of the end of all things is the novel's centerpiece, but it's told from the point of view of two men sequestered in an apartment in Toronto, watching the chaos below. Mandel's accounting of how they slowly but surely lose the hallmarks of civilization (TV, the internet, phones, and, finally, running water) may or may not be bolstered by impressive research. But it feels real in that moment, and it adds to the haunting sense of a world slowly slipping out of everyone's grasp.
4) The stuff in the present day is also terrific
Mandel's decision to set much of her novel in the years before the Georgia Flu breaks out likely won't work for some, since it detracts from the more immediately exciting post-apocalyptic stuff.
But it's necessary in order to set up some of the book's major characters and one of its main themes: every day is the end of the world for someone on a private level. They may have lost someone dear to them. Their marriage may have crumbled. They might have seen their cat slip out the door and been unable to find it.
Mandel captures these tiny moments of lives in crisis in the sections set in the world we're more immediately familiar with, and her sensitivity toward all of her characters helps make them terrifically involving.
5) The "main character" is almost never on-page
If you were to make a movie of Station Eleven, the part you'd want a big star for, the part you'd hope would win a Best Actor Oscar, would be Arthur Leander, an aging movie star who's trying to hang onto his relevancy by performing King Lear in Toronto. Mandel kills him in her first chapter, when he has a heart attack on stage, and her story spirals outward from Leander (whose tale is the center of the pre-apocalypse), the paramedic in training who tries to save him (who forms the basis of the mid-apocalypse), and a small girl on stage who watches him die (who is at the center of the post-apocalypse). By building around these three characters, Mandel creates great frames of reference for all three of her storylines.
But what's interesting is how often the story returns to thoughts of Leander, even though he died a night before the world began to end. He's a cipher and an enigma, and much of the book is spent by people who aren't him, trying to figure him out. By the time Mandel finally, fully drops us inside of his point-of-view, we're as ready to understand the man as anybody else in the book.
But this is also a moving commentary on the end of the traditional Western canon, usually driven by books written by white men. Even though Leander is this novel's main character, he's as unknowable to most of the figures within the book as, say, the heroine might be to the hero in a romantic comedy. And it's not an accident that Leander is the only straight white dude who's a major character in these pages. The rest of the book is given over to women, to people of color, to gay men, and yet all of them keep wondering what Leander thinks about them, even if he's dead. This is not so very far from the way that more and more books are written from perspectives outside of the traditional center of the canon. It's good for literature, but it's also not as if the old canon is now invalidated. It just needs to make room for others.
The end of the world necessarily would also mean the end of the current systems and hegemonies we have built up. And that's a thing worth mourning and a thing that holds promise for new ways going forward. We use the word "apocalypse" to mean "the end of the world," but its literal translation from Greek is something closer to "revealing something that was hidden." In such a way does Mandel use her fictional apocalypse to poke at hidden truths of the world that is.
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