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Station Eleven Paperback – June 2, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, September 2014: A flight from Russia lands in middle America, its passengers carrying a virus that explodes “like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth.” In a blink, the world as we know it collapses. “No more ballgames played under floodlights,” Emily St. John Mandel writes in this smart and sober homage to life’s smaller pleasures, brutally erased by an apocalypse. “No more trains running under the surface of cities ... No more cities ... No more Internet ... No more avatars.” Survivors become scavengers, roaming the ravaged landscape or clustering in pocket settlements, some of them welcoming, some dangerous. What’s touching about the world of Station Eleven is its ode to what survived, in particular the music and plays performed for wasteland communities by a roving Shakespeare troupe, the Traveling Symphony, whose members form a wounded family of sorts. The story shifts deftly between the fraught post-apocalyptic world and, twenty years earlier, just before the apocalypse, the death of a famous actor, which has a rippling effect across the decades. It’s heartbreaking to watch the troupe strive for more than mere survival. At once terrible and tender, dark and hopeful, Station Eleven is a tragically beautiful novel that both mourns and mocks the things we cherish. –Neal Thompson--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed, and Entertainment Weekly, Time, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Minnesota Public Radio, The Huffington Post, BookPage, Time Out, BookRiot
“Station Eleven is so compelling, so fearlessly imagined, that I wouldn’t have put it down for anything.”
— Ann Patchett
“A superb novel . . . [that] leaves us not fearful for the end of the word but appreciative of the grace of everyday existence.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Deeply melancholy, but beautifully written, and wonderfully elegiac . . . A book that I will long remember, and return to.”
— George R. R. Martin
“Absolutely extraordinary.” —Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus
“Darkly lyrical. . . . A truly haunting book, one that is hard to put down." —The Seattle Times
“Tender and lovely. . . . Equal parts page-turner and poem.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Mesmerizing.” — People
“Mandel delivers a beautifully observed walk through her book’s 21st century world…. I kept putting the book down, looking around me, and thinking, ‘Everything is a miracle.’”—Matt Thompson, NPR
“My book of the year.”—Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
“Unmissable. . . . A literary page-turner, impeccably paced, which celebrates the world lost.” —Vulture
“Haunting and riveting.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Station Eleven is the kind of book that speaks to dozens of the readers in me—the Hollywood devotee, the comic book fan, the cult junkie, the love lover, the disaster tourist. It is a brilliant novel, and Emily St. John Mandel is astonishing.” —Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers
“Think of Cormac McCarthy seesawing with Joan Didion. . . . Magnetic.” —Kirkus (starred)
“Even if you think dystopian fiction is not your thing, I urge you to give this marvelous novel a try. . . . [An] emotional and thoughtful story.” —Deborah Harkness, author of The Book of Life
“It’s hard to imagine a novel more perfectly suited, in both form and content, to this literary moment. Station Eleven, if we were to talk about it in our usual way, would seem like a book that combines high culture and low culture—“literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” But those categories aren’t really adequate to describe the book” —The New Yorker
“Audacious. . . . A book about gratitude, about life right now, if we can live to look back on it." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“A surprisingly beautiful story of human relationships amid devastation.” —The Washington Post
“Soul-quaking. . . . Mandel displays the impressive skill of evoking both terror and empathy.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“A genuinely unsettling dystopian novel that also allows for moments of great tenderness. Emily St. John Mandel conjures indelible visuals, and her writing is pure elegance.” —Patrick deWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers
“Possibly the most captivating and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic novel you will ever read.” —The Independent (London)
“A firework of a novel . . . full of life and humanity and the aftershock of memory.” —Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls
“One of the best things I’ve read on the ability of art to endure in a good long while.” —Tobias Carroll, Electric Literature
“Will change the post-apocalyptic genre. . . . This isn’t a story about survival, it’s a story about living.” —Boston Herald
“A big, brilliant, ambitious, genre-bending novel. . . . Hands-down one of my favorite books of the year.” —Sarah McCarry, Tor.com
“Strange, poetic, thrilling, and grim all at once, Station Eleven is a prismatic tale about survival, unexpected coincidences, and the significance of art.” —Bustle, “Best Book of the Month”
“Disturbing, inventive and exciting, Station Eleven left me wistful for a world where I still live.” —Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist
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Top Customer Reviews
The story is told by people who are all connected in some way to Arthur Leander, a 51-year-old famous actor who died of a heart attack in Toronto while performing King Lear, just before the outbreak of the “Georgia Flu.”
The mise-en-scène beginning of the story is a microcosm of the book as a whole, which in some ways is a series of set-pieces featuring a traveling band of actors and musicians calling themselves “The Symphony.” At each town of any size they stop and entertain the public with concerts and theatrical performances. While they occasionally do other plays, people tend to prefer Shakespeare the most. “People want what was best about the world,” one of the group explains. Their motto, painted on one of their caravans, and taken from an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager” is “Survival is insufficient.” This is also the saying that the main protagonist, Kirsten Raymonde, has tattooed on her arm.
Kirsten was eight when the flu came, and at the time she was playing a bit part in Leander’s "King Lear" production. She had taken a liking to Leander, and he had given her some science fiction comics penned by his first ex-wife, called the “Station Eleven” series starring “Dr. Eleven,” a physicist who travels around on a space station after aliens took over the Earth. She still carries the comics with her everywhere. Kirsten remembers Arthur vividly, even though she can no longer even recall her own mother.
In alternating chapters, the author moves back and forth between the pre- and postapocalyptic times, and we learn more about Arthur’s life, and about the others who are featured in the book and who knew Arthur.
But this is more than a memoir and ode to a bygone way of life. When The Symphony comes to a town called St. Deborah by the Water, they discover the town is under the control of a religious cult leader calling himself The Prophet, who follows The Symphony after they leave with malicious intent. It is a new race for survival to see if members of The Symphony can reach a rumored haven in a former airport near the old city of Chicago before they are eliminated by this mysterious Prophet. The Airport is said not only to offer a safe place to live in peace, but something called The Museum of Civilization, where travelers have left artifacts of the former world - from credit cards to passports to laptops - so that the next generation can see what the world use to be.
When a showdown comes between Symphony member survivors and The Prophet, a large twist reveals how truly interconnected this pared-down world really is.
Discussion: This story is admirable for foregoing unreal elements that could steer the plot into silliness. I believe it is even supposed to be somewhat uplifting, with its glimpses of the dogged tenacity of nature manifested as the greenery and flowers that reclaim the spaces once overrun by concrete and steel, and of the perseverance of cultural excellence from the old world, such as classical music and Shakespeare. The author notes that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” often performed by the troupe, was written in 1594, the year London’s theaters reopened after two seasons of plague. Plague frequently closed Shakespeare’s theaters, and yet they consistently reopened, in one more way in which the threads of the plot interconnect. Nevertheless, I found the book bleak and depressing. It probably should be, given that it is “post-apocalyptic,” but it was also a bit too “theatrical” for me to get fully invested emotionally in the characters. By presenting the plot in “scenes” and dramatic interludes (echoing not only the plays but the panels of the Station Eleven comic books) rather than an organically evolving story, I felt more conscious of the “literariness” of the book than of being able to lose myself emotionally in the lives of the characters.
There is furthermore an overall tone of quiet and tranquility, which seems at odds with a post-pandemic struggle for survival. It suggests, rather, the dreamy, stage-play metaphor that permeates the prose. This was yet another aspect of the book that kept me distant from it.
Evaluation: In many ways this is an excellent novel, and was included on many “top ten books” lists for 2014. I agree it was very well done, even if, for me, the style tended to overwhelm the substance.
That brings us to one of the main themes of this tale, "survival is insufficient." Taken from a Star Trek episode, the phrase is the motto of the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag band of musicians and actors who roam what's left of the Midwest, playing classical music and performing Shakespeare. The ability to create and appreciate art, they believe, is essential to our humanity. It's what takes us beyond mere survival and makes us something more than animals. I loved this part of the book, how the little settlements of people living in Walmarts and gas stations would rush out to hear Beethoven, tears streaming down their faces. This is one of my favorite angles of post-apocalyptic fiction - once we've figured out how to survive, how do we learn to LIVE again? What exactly is it that makes us human? How do we go about redefining humanity, rebuilding civilization?
The author also touches on the enduring power of art and storytelling, and the ways in which stories connect us all. Beyond the Beethoven and the Shakespeare, there's a comic book called Station Eleven that features prominently (and also gives the novel its name). It was written, somewhat randomly, by the first wife of a very famous Hollywood actor. She wrote the comic for herself and published only two copies, which end up in the hands of two of the main characters post-apocalypse. The comics have a profound impact on both characters (so the obscure art of the obscure ex-wife endures because art is forever, while the Hollywood actor is forgotten because who cares about Hollywood after the end of the world). The stories of the two characters in possession of the comics are mostly separate, though absolutely intertwined - as are ALL of the characters' stories. One of the most amazing aspects of this novel is how all of the characters are connected, both pre- and post-collapse. I kept waiting for many of them to cross paths and realize their connection, their shared stories. Some did, and some didn't - the latter bothered me at first, until I realized that's the way the world works. We're all woven into the same giant tapestry, whether we see the individual threads or not. That, along with King Lear and Beethoven's 9th and unheard-of graphic novels about being stranded in space, is the beauty of humankind.