This story more or less revolves around the character Arthur Leander, a Canadian actor who died of a heart attack the day the Georgia Flu hit North America. Jumping back and forth in the timeline, the tale shows how things were before the pandemic and after, how certain characters were influenced, or not, by Arthur. Quite frankly, I wasn’t particularly interested in Arthur, but he served as an anchor point for the story.
First, let’s chat about that timeline. It’s not too confusing, but I did have to pay attention in order to figure out when I was on the timeline every time we switched characters. The story starts off in the here and now with Arthur Leander about to play King Lear on stage in Toronto. Once the flu disaster is off to a good start, we jump ahead 20 years to the Traveling Symphony, which hangs out by Lake Michigan. Throughout, the story will jump back to before the disaster and we learn more about Leander’s life. Also, there are a few times when the timeline jumps to 15 years after the disaster when Kirsten Raymonde is giving an interview to a newly risen newspaper. In general, I didn’t mind that it jumped around so much. If the story had been laid out chronologically, I would have lost interest with Leander’s life and given up on the book. However, with Arthur Leander’s life being chopped up in smaller bits, I was OK with it.
Kirsten Raymonde was my favorite character. She briefly knew Arthur because she was one of the three little girls playing non-speaking roles in King Lear in Toronto. Mostly, the reader gets to know her as an adult living in Year 20 (20 years after the flu hit North America). She’s an actress and lives with the Traveling Symphony, which is the combination of a defunct military orchestra and an acting troupe. They have been traveling a circuit near Lake Michigan for years and it is usually a safe existence. She remembers very little from the time before the disaster and I think this is why she has held on tightly to three things from that time – anything she can find on Arthur Leander, her Doctor 11 comic books (limited prints), and a fanciful paperweight.
Everyone in the Traveling Symphony is armed in one way or another and everyone contributes in some way. Some folks track and hunt, others sew and cook. There are no traditional male and female roles in the troupe and I really liked this aspect. Most people cross train to some extent to be able to pick up the slack when necessary. I was very surprised by how organized the troupe was. The Conductor, who leads the Traveling Symphony, is ex-military and she has made sure that everyone can move quickly and quietly in an efficient manner when necessary. They have procedures in place for when someone becomes separated from the group. The long familiarity of the group with each other and these rules allowed me to focus on the characters and what life had become a generation after the pandemic. So much of the societal collapse subgenre deals with the immediate aftermath (and that’s all entertaining), but this book had a nice long breather between that madness of immediate government collapse and the story contained in this book.
The Doctor 11 comic books (there’s only two of them), play a bigger role than I initially thought. They are introduced pretty early on as Kirsten likes to read them often. The author is a bit of a mystery and Kirsten searches for further books in the series whenever she gets a chance. Right off, I wanted to know more about these comics and much later in the book, we do learn more about them. In fact, we get to meet the author before the collapse. Also, Kirsten isn’t the only one who has been influenced by them, but we don’t learn more about that until near the end. I really liked how this story of a future scientist built a living, breathing ship of sorts, kind of a small planet, and yet he grieves over the Earth he has lost.
Jeevan was my second favorite character. He’s there at the beginning. He’s had a lot of jobs over the years, trying to find his place in the world. Lately, he’s been a paparazzo and even more recently he has trained as an EMT. In fact, he’s in the audience when Arthur Leander collapses from a heart attack and his experience in trying to save him cements his ideas of becoming a licensed EMT. But then the Georgia Flu hits Toronto and he has to get supplies up to his brother’s 22nd floor apartment. Ha! That was amusing. Then Jeevan and Frank watch from on high as the world spins down. Jeevan doesn’t appear again in the story for some time and I was sad that we got so little of him after this initial appearance.
The plot, after the world pandemic in Year 20, involves the Traveling Symphony running into a prophet and his mostly reluctant followers as they return to a city to locate their once pregnant band member Charlie and her beau Jeremy. It quickly becomes apparent that they don’t want to hang out in this town for very long, so they put on a show and then quietly and quickly pack up and leave. They’ve had word that Charlie and Jeremy and their baby have headed south, possibly to the Museum of Civilization at the Severn City airport.
This plot line was way more interesting to me than Arthur Leander’s life and I wish the book had spent more time on it. The prophet has a lot of power, even if his people give it to him grudgingly. There’s a lot of psychology going on beneath it all, about authority figures, the young and easily influenced, and wrapping it up in a religious cloth. So I think more could have been done with this. Still, there’s plenty of mystery and tension and trying to quietly flee while also keeping hold of everyone in the Symphony. Then there is the additional mystery of the Museum of Civilization and what kind of people live there. That’s covered in another time leap backwards, again with people who knew Arthur Leander. That little bit was my second favorite little plot line of the book.
Over all, I am glad I gave it a read. It’s not your typical ‘world is ending’ story, being much calmer and less dramatic. This allowed for more character development, which I liked. While I didn’t care much for Arthur Leander, his character acted as this touchstone for the rest of the tale. I do wish he had been more interesting, but then I might have been sad that he died.
Narration: Kirsten Potter was a fine narrator for this story. She had distinct voices for each of the characters and her male voices were believable. I especially liked her somewhat melancholy voice for the character Kirsten Raymonde. She also did the few required accents quite well. Her voice for the prophet was sometimes chilling!
This is a wonderful book.
The kind of book you want to lend to people so you can have another person to talk to about it.
The kind of book that you recognize yourself in and wonder whether you should change the way you live.
The kind of book that you rotate in your mind like a gem, just to watch all the facets of the story and the story-telling and the imagery and the cultural connection points, sparkle as your attention focuses on them.
The kind of book that makes you cry without embarrassment.
And yet, I almost didn’t read it because the publisher’s summary reads:
“An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.”
Having read the book, I barely recognize this description of it. Did they not read novel? Did they not understand it? Or did they think that bland and mushy would sell better?
“Eerie days of civilization’s collapse” – try brutal and overwhelming and grief-stricken and absolutely terrifying.
“a nomadic group of actors … risking everything for art and humanity” – this is so far off the point that it makes me want to scream. Nowhere in the world they live in is safe.
They do what they do because it allows them to live in the relative safety of a group, enables them to create a “family” of musicians and actors, lets them practice the skills that make them who they are, takes them away from the violence they sometimes have to commit and, as it says on the side of one of their caravans: “Because Survival Is Not Sufficient.”
So what is “Station Eleven” really like?
It’s non-linear and lyrical. The structure of the story reminded me of songs where a chorus repeats but with one or two words changing each time so that the message is not only new and different but all the choruses act together like a chord or perhaps a riff, that sticks in the memory and makes you want to tap your feet.
We circle back many times to the same scenes but from a different character’s point of view and with knowledge that was not available to us the last time we visited the scene. Meaning shifts, perceptions of characters alter, the scene itself takes on the quality of a memory that has mutated into a family story, more lore than fact, packed with more meaning than data.
At one points the narrator says: “A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films.” Much of “Station Eleven” is like that: collages of images that the reader forms into patterns, comic book pages where the colors and shapes and the relative size of the panels carry the story while the text is a decorative highlight.
“Station Eleven” braids strands of cultural references, from “Star Trek Voyager”, source of the “Because Survival Is Not Sufficient” quote, through TV Guides and gossip magazines, to Shakespeare’s plays, and live classical music, to create a bright new world full of hope, threat and sorrow.
“Station Eleven” lacquers theme over theme, achieving the rich patina of a Japanese pagoda: the performance of “King Lear” that starts the book – a man made mad by the loss of his world – plastic snow falling as the actor dies, echoed by the plastic snow in the snow globe in the airport that provokes a long chain of thought about all the people involved in getting it there. The mutation from “Because Survival Is Not Sufficient” to a musician's decision to write a play “Because Shakespeare Is Not Sufficient”. The impact that the graphic novel, “Station Eleven” has on the woman who wrote it, the children who received the only two copies to survive – one an actress with throwing knives in her belt, the other a prophet with death in his heart. The power of theatre in the old world and the new to lift people above the everyday and unlock the emotions that necessity and expedience have bound and imprisoned.
“Station Eleven” uses the device of a world twenty years after a pandemic has killed almost everyone on the planet to show us the fragile beauty and improbable complexity of the world we live in every day.
Sometimes it evokes sorrow, with people focusing on what was lost – the last ice-cream they had, the last plane that actually flew them somewhere, the last phone call that they made, which they wasted on their boss yet never got to say goodbye to their family. The sorrow mirrors the scene in the graphic novel where Dr Eleven says “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” and the feeling of the people of Undersea who cannot bear their new world and just want to go home.
Sometimes, when looking at a night sky, free of light pollution and thick with stars, or when we watch a deer pause and then enter a silent forest and understand the “beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone”, we experience not loss but release from all the day to day things that were once so important and have now become objects in a museum, whose purpose and function seems less and less believable over time. Then we can look back with Miranda and say: “This life was never ours…we were only ever borrowing it.”
The accuracy of some parts of the book made me flinch. My job is so close to Clarke’s that it hit hard when a person he is interviewing helps him realize that he is sleep-walking through his life, doing something that he doesn’t hate but which leaves him numb and, beneath the numbness, perhaps a little angry. The feeling fits me like a well worn in shoe and makes me long to go barefoot.
“Station Eleven” got under my skin: the beauty of the language, the elegant strength of the woven storylines, the humanity of the characters, the transformation of our normal world into something magical and precious, the presentation of a future world that is one part loss, one part violence and two parts hope, the recognition that hell is not other people but the absence of the people we long for.
With a book like this, there is no substitute for the text. Read it. Tell everyone what you thought about it.