Station Eleven, by Hilary St. John Mandel (2014), takes place after a devastating flu epidemic. Far from another end-of-the-world story, this spare, eloquent novel blends everything I love about genre and literary fiction, and is another stellar example of how two styles don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.
It begins with Shakespeare as Arthur Leander, a prominent actor, portrays King Lear on what is to be the last day of the known world. He suffers a heart attack on stage, and a stranger (of sorts) leaps on stage to help, but it’s too late. As Arthur dies, the Georgian Flu begins its near annihilation of the human species.
It turns out the stranger, Jeevan Choudhary, is linked to Arthur, as are many of the characters in the novel. It’s this connection to Arthur and the ripples left behind of his life that forms the core of the book, rather than any showdown between good and evil. There is an antagonist called The Prophet, a religious zealot who causes some problems for The Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel throughout the isolated communities after the flu (“Because Survival Is Insufficient”); but this conflict isn’t the entire focus of the book, and the Prophet himself turns out to be profoundly linked to Arthur as well.
“Station Eleven” refers to a sci-fi graphic novel written and illustrated by one of Arthur’s ex-wives, Miranda, and showcases some of the themes of the book: the mourning of a lost world, and the search for home. As the novel unfolds back and forth across time, as the threads of Arthur’s life are woven together and connections are revealed, the narrative becomes much more than another dystopian yarn. It examines the nature of fame, and the longing for immortality. It’s about art and how it connects us and reflects our experiences as human beings. It’s about memory and remembrance. It’s a book I won’t soon forget.