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Book Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Our books editor loved the newly released "Station Eleven" by Emily Mandel.

A month or so ago a fellow critic and I lunched and chatted about books, as we do, and one of the books we discussed was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The critic had read it; I hadn’t. “Oh! There are so many inconsistencies in that book!” said my colleague, going on to list several of them. While I mentioned that I’d loved St. John Mandel’s previous novels (which is true, although I had a couple of problems with her first one, Last Night in Montreal), we shared a good snicker about books that don’t close their own loops. Yes, I’m keeping it real, folks; when book people gather, we sometimes say things for our own amusement.

I kept the caveats about inconsistencies in mind when I finally had time to pick up Station Eleven this week. One that we’d talked about seemed glaring to me (and I’m going to attempt to analyze this without spoilers): Why didn’t the characters ever camp out in private homes? Since even the most cursory reviews of the novel will tell you that it’s about a near-future version of our society after “civilization’s collapse,” no one’s reading will be ruined when I say that I originally hypothesized that people were avoiding any structure that might be occupied. But I could be completely wrong, and after reading several dozen more pages, I realized this: It doesn’t matter one bit.

Yes, St. John Mandel is writing dystopian fiction with science-fiction shadings–and I know that many fans of such fiction love inner consistency in their reads. (Not that my aforementioned colleague falls into that category.) She is also writing the kind of high-concept book that puts its author on the high wire: How will she connect her cast of characters? isn’t simply a brain-teaser of a question. It’s one that adds a layer (or layers) of meaning to the book. When you go beyond plot and beyond theme to the next level of symbolism and purpose, then add plot devices, character connections, and atmosphere, you’re writing a high-concept book. It tickled me that Mandel references Justin Cronin’s wildly popular The Passage in Station Eleven, not just because she’s tipping her hat to a master of “Armageddon Lit,” but also because it seems like a “Look Ma! No hands!” moment where she admits that hers is no step-by-step survival guide and is instead a book about references and ineffabilities, like the Lufthansa scarf one male character wears. Even when no one else remembers why he keeps it around his neck, he does.

By the time I was halfway through Station Eleven, any and all holes in its logic mattered not a wit. Jeevan, the EMT-in-training who attempts to resuscitate actor Arthur Leander during a performance of “King Lear”, and his brother Frank mattered more to me than figuring out how many packs of toilet paper Jeevan managed to smuggle back to their apartment before the Toronto power grid shut down. Publisher’s Weekly wrote “…this book shouldn’t work nearly so well,” and they’re right. That’s the magic of Mandel’s high-wire performance. She should fall, leaning so far–but she doesn’t. Our disbelief should not suspend, but it does.

Woven into the scenes of past and present that truly are eventually resolved are chapters about The Traveling Symphony, a group of performers who cart their instruments and costumes wherever they can, embodying their slogan “Because Survival Is Insufficient.” Hidden within the elliptical exchanges (sometimes printed as interviews, sometimes as conversations, sometimes through other bits of media) are very big questions about why we perform, and for whom. No wonder the glowing tents on the cover are there: Within them, people who have survived calamity and tragedy continue to go through their paces as human beings.