Is it going to take the apocalypse for you to realize you’ve been living the wrong life? That you could have (and should have) been doing what you loved, all along, but now it’s too late? Will it require the world ending in front of your face before you see where you went wrong? Presuming you survive?
It will be fitting, here, to invoke a Shakespearean reference to the “primrose path.” Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel involves a full troupe of actors and musicians who reenact the Bard’s tragedies for a dreary tour (by a caravan of wagons) across a wasteland of “settlements” and barren territories 15 years after a plague-like flu devastates the world’s population. They stumble toward a reckoning moment of clarity.
Mandel, in her first work with a major publishing house after prior titles featured as Indie Next picks, creates a thinkpiece-dystopia, free of cannibalistic biker gang marauders and subjugated teen idols shooting arrows. When certain characters come face to face with the existential endgame of the apocalypse, they serve up stirring ruminations on the meaning of immortality. They ponder “certain questions concerning memory and fame” and how every actor in every old black and white movie, not just “the Clark Gables and the Ava Gardners” but the most mundane of bit players can all be immortal to us, the audience. “First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”
At the center of it, we find a Kirsten Raymonde, a girl we meet at age 8, just as the pandemic strikes. Fifteen years later, she tours with “The Traveling Symphony,” a complete orchestra of artists ranging widely in age, background and temperament. Mandel’s tale spans a couple of decades leading up to and following after the frightening, fantastically fast-spreading pandemic, and we meet a slew of souls as they greet the shock of the end of the world as we know it.
The Symphony scuttles costumes and instruments as it travels, weary yet resolute, across the Great Lakes territory. The artists stop and perform in sparsely populated towns, presenting works by Beethoven or performing Shakespeare’s King Lear. “Because,” one actor explains with heavy wistfulness, “people want what was best of the world.”
Mandel’s dystopia may be a softer, more romanticized portrait than The Walking Dead, but we still find similarly unimaginable experiences and startling scenarios. Since this mystery flu arrived in a different strain than the clichéd zombie plague, we do miss out on action-packed zombie kills. Mandel’s diverse cast instead engages in deep ruminations (sometimes too deep) where, in their heads, they piece together poetic thought-bubble monologues that eulogize the long-gone comforts of the digital age.
Along with Kirsten Raymonde at stage center, Mandel retraces the career (and tragic fate) of Hollywood actor Arthur Leander, who dies on the first page, just two weeks after “the collapse.” Arthur came from a humble upbringing on a secluded British Columbian island. Fate flung him into the flashy world of celebrity, where he spends time being chased by a paparazzo who will one day be the same man who attempts to resuscitate Arthur after he suffers a heart attack at the Elgin in Toronto, midway through a King Lear performance. This somewhat listless and somewhat nihilistic rescuer, Jeevan Chaudhary, will be another of a half-dozen people Mandel follows through the 20 years of impending doom.
When Chaudhary actually gets to interview Leander, midway through the book at a point in time that’s still years before the pandemic, their conversation crackles, pondering on why we, why anyone, does what they do for a living? How much enjoyment do we really obtain? Coldly analytical but also engagingly philosophic, the dialogue nicely sums up the predominant vibe of Mandel’s book. She essentially reinvents existentialism.
Mandel is far less bleak than Camus. In fact, the narrative is made most endearing by her sporadic invocations of art history, along with Kirsten Raymonde and the Traveling Symphony symbolizing the hopelessly heroic preservationists of what stands for culture, theatre and “what was best of the world.”
Deep in the book, we come to a museum of artifacts inside a condemned airport (itself a kind of sanctuary). Here some of the artists must elude the dangerous and cultish followers of a proclaimed Prophet. So, yes, we do run into some charmingly familiar tropes of the typical dystopia tale. But, Mandel’s story works because she never gratuitously amplifies the gloom.
Station Eleven has been longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award. Its distinction lies in Mandel’s talent for subtly inciting self-pondering in the reader. It’s less: “Oh dear, I hope this character or that character makes it out and to a happy ending…” It’s more: “Wow, what if this really did happen? What would I do? What have I been doing with my life?”
Taking the world for granted feels so yesterday.
Jeff Milo is a Michigan-based writer and a frequent contributor to Paste.