Friday, August 14, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Photo: from St. John Mandel's homepage, here.

Like St. John Mandel's other books, Station Eleven is a story told in different weaves of time and space, following a small handful of characters as they meander through each other's lives. Because it's written this way, the reader is able to see how everyone's paths are touched by what some call "The Butterfly Effect," a philosophy (?) which peaked maybe 10 years ago, but is still hanging around.  This is the magic, and sometimes the detriment, of her writing style.  Everything and everybody connects, sometimes a little too tidily so.

More than her other books (of which Last Night in Montreal is her best), Station Eleven threatens to be a little too tidy at the end.  Thankfully, it never quite gets there, and instead remains a great book with interlocking characters and their stories. 

It begins with a heart attack and it ends with a resolution that does not end with finality, since the main character does not stop long enough to end anything.  She just moves on, because in the post-apocalypse, there is no stopping.  You stop, you die, she seems to say.  The characters of The Walking Dead know this.  You stop, something inside you dies.  This is partly what Station Eleven's about.

One thing it's not about is The End of the World As We Know It.  Yes, there's been a very strong flu that wipes out much (but perhaps not most?) of the known world, and certainly there are problems because there aren't enough people alive anymore to take care of things.  (For example, a guy dies because he steps on a rusty nail and can't get antibiotics.)  But these things are not the story as much as they are the background, the props, the scenery. 

This is a good thing, because haven't we been there and done that?  If we want the Apocalypse, we watch TV.  If we want literature, we read.  Good writers get that distinction.  Good writers' writing focuses intensely on one thing and gets it right.  Station Eleven does that.  It gets its people right--so right that it deserves the National Book Award nomination it got.

And there are some images that'll stick with you.  The most memorable to me is the last view a main character gets: watching ships and barges in the distance as they drift away on a quiet sea.  The woman appreciates this, too, as she is also drifting away on a quiet sea.  This book gets moments like those right.  It is also very readable--a feat for such a literary work.  So if you're into the post-Apocalypse--but also especially if you're not--buy this one and give it a read.  For more information and accolades, see St. John Mandel's homepage here.

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