Ready for some dystopian larks? Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, is set before, during and after the outbreak of a deadly plague (a swine-flu spin-off) that has left a mere one percent of Earth’s humans up and running. And run (read: walk) they did, in the immediate aftermath, as each survivor was forced, in typical post-apocalyptic story style, to navigate a dodgy landscape full of gun-toting desperados in search of a settlement. Still, by Year Twenty, things have more or less settled down…or have they? A crazed preacher is on the loose and picking off the unworthy living and our (sort of) heroine is forced to go on the run once more.
The buzz around this book seems to be stuck on the not-very-remarkable fact that this is a post-apocalyptic literary text – as though such a beast were a rare sight – when, in fact, the more interesting talking-point surely ought to be not that Mandel, a literary writer, is concerned with the end of civilization, but that she’s concerned with how one might narrate that end. That is: your typical disaster narrative, book or film, is all rather teleological. It’s all building to something – the arrival of the army, or the aliens, or the non-infected foreigners, or the scientists or, or, or, such that there is always an assumed end-point to the characters’ ordeals. Even McCarthy’s bleaker-than-bleak The Road gives us some hope: the boy finds a new, healthier family; the boy, we figure, might survive. In Mandel’s text, though, we’re reminded again and again that life isn’t like that. Who says the lights are coming back on? Who says things will get better? The central threat – the Prophet, a deranged Book of Revelations fan – is slaughtering people well after most of the slaughtering has ended; the people with the technological know-how to enable recovery are all getting a little too old to help; the world isn’t such rehabilitating itself, but settling into a future that’s got to come to terms with the way things are now, to misquote Antony Trollope. And what does that mean for a book about a disaster and its aftermath? For one, it becomes decentralized. By that we mean we get the typical multiplicity of tales of folk who’ve been affected (some die, some don’t, and most of them know one another), but what we don’t get is all of them pooling their efforts to technologically or magically or politically reroute the way things are now to a more pleasing/hopeful/recuperative future. Instead they just…carry on struggling. The teleology of it, that is, the forward-moving-ness of the narrative, is derailed. Our expectations about what we’re likely to get from a story like this aren’t met; after an apocalypse, Mandel is saying, there’s no going back and we better just get to grips with that.
So does it work? What’s it like? Well, there’s much to enjoy. The spread of pestilence – who doesn’t love that? The cast (actors, musicians, an ex-paparazzo, a comic-book artist, a disillusioned HR professional) aren’t the usual Noah-style eclectic bunch (a farmer, a teacher, a housewife, a spooky child); rather, they mostly represent the same crew that would normally facilitate the type of apocalypse movie that this book riffs off. We get Hollywood adrift, the five-act structure torn-up, actors without a script. Part of the book, which comprises a bunch of intertwined stories that gradually reveal how all the characters are connected, details the work of the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of Shakespearian actors and classical musicians that tour post-apocalyptic Canada performing sixteenth century plays to a similarly plague-obsessed audience. But while the stories they tell have conclusions – comfortingly so – the contemporary horror for the actors and their viewers is that, as we saw, their own stories are going nowhere. The whole set-up here is fantastic. One of the other characters, Miranda (more Shakespeare!), has spent her life on a series of never-to-be-seen comics, the titular Station Eleven, which acts as a central metaphor for Mandel’s project: in the comics, Captain Eleven is adrift on a planet-sized space-station and in reluctant combat with his co-travellers, a group of people who want to return to their home, despite it’s being overrun by hostile aliens, and who live in the meanwhile beneath the surface of the planet/station in the Undersea. Like The Travelling Symphony, the people of the Undersea will never get home and they’ll never stop reaming of it; like the novel, Station Eleven, the comic doesn’t provide an ending that wraps things up. And the comic, like the Symphony’s performances, asks us: is art worth it as an end in itself, without end, without hope?
As you’ve probably guessed, this is a clever, clever book: it’s ambitious and layered and thought-provoking throughout. But does it work? That is, does it live up to its own remit? Well, that’s where we have reservations. Because although it asks all the right questions – why ought a post-apocalyptic story be climactic? – it is still, after all, a plotted novel. Unlike the comic, the novel does end: it traces its storylines to conclusions and it even hints at the possibility for change. The Prophet gets his come-uppance; separated friends find one another; somebody, somewhere, switches the lights back on. Now, we’re sympathetic to Mandel’s dilemma. You’ve got to keep people reading, after all – you need to generate tension and then, somehow, dissipate that tension in a non-disappointing way if you want folk to read on. The blurb in fact oversells the plotted-ness of the book, in a way that betrays the more philosophical underpinnings of the text, by flagging up the Prophet as a major, major threat to the world in Year Twenty, when, as another character points out, violent prophets are always coming and going, and what’s one more? The end, or otherwise, of the Prophet, is kind of mundane in a greater scheme of things whereby there is no final showdown or reversal of fortune. But the way the book has been marketed – placing the Prophet as a Randall Flagg figure – does point to the tricky balance that Mandel’s trying to negotiate. If you want to undercut the usual post-apocalyptic story (horror followed by savior) in favour of a less artificial one (horror followed by endless bleak mundanity) then you’ve got to ignore plot as much as possible. But how do you do that when you are, after all, working within a sub-genre that’s all about the plot? To what extent can you ditch plot and still be recognizable as a book that’s messing with what think we’re getting from that sub-genre? It’s a problem, and no mistake. We think, ultimately, that Mandel doesn’t pull it off. The Prophet plot becomes the kind of end-oriented narrative that she’s otherwise trying to avoid, and although we could forgive her that (as we’re reminded, prophets come and go), the actual ending is a step too far: Clark’s and Kirsten’s identification of an electricity grid gives the text the exact type of teleological drive in the very last pages, that the whole rest of the book seemed to be denying. Sure, it could be a meta-twist – hey, guys, only kidding! Keep on believing! – but if so, and either way, we think it’s a cop-out. Why spend a couple of hundred pages deconstructing the idea of interminable progress only to end on, what, interminable progress?
Any Cop?: It depends what you’re after. A traditional disaster plot? Nope: it’s too open-ended. A meta-narrative about the impossibility of plot and the end of grand narratives? Nope: it starts off well but throws us an unwelcome lifeline just when we expected everything to properly collapse. But it is interesting, and we do like the way Mandel messes with genre conventions. Probably our favourite bit, though, was the sheet from Miranda’s Station Eleven comic that gets included with the hardback as a bookmark: just as the stories we see in the book are fragments of lives, so too is this sheet a fragment of an unfinished (unfinishable) narrative. It’s a conceptually intriguing text, then, but a let-down in the end.