I'm participating in a panel discussion of Emily St. John Mandel's novel, Station Eleven (2014) on Tuesday, so I thought I'd blog about it as a way of thinking through what I have to say about it.
Typically, I have a gut reaction to a text, so I often start from there and then try to figure out why I feel that way. In the case of Mandel's novel, I found myself thinking "More plague, less apocalypse, please."
Now, this may simply be a measure of my own personal literary preferences. I'm not keen on "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" or dystopian literature in general. I HATED Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example. Couldn't even finish it. And NO, I'm not linking to it here in my blog either. I just big, fat, friggin' didn't CARE what happened to anyone in that novel.
For the record, if, while reading a novel, I find myself tipping over sideways on my couch, closing my eyes and shouting, "Oh my GOD, give me a BREAK!!!" that is a sign that I really don't like the novel. This happened TWICE while reading The Road. I have never read another word McCarthy has written. Sorry, no. Can't do it.
So as I found myself thinking "more plague, less apocalypse," I tried to figure out what I meant by that. And I think it's this: is Mandel's plague supposed to be "realistic," or is it supposed to be allegorical?
For example, in The Plague by Albert Camus or Boccaccio's Decameron or Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year or Jose Saramago's Blindness, there are descriptions of an actual plague, but in many ways, the idea of the plague itself is transformed into a larger concept. It's a vehicle for thinking about the meaning of art and life, for example.
I think this was what Mandel was going for, but I'm not totally sure. But I want to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one, because I have to say that, if her plague was meant to be "realistic" in any way, I was not at all convinced.
At the start of the novel, a pandemic of "Georgian Flu" sweeps across the globe, wiping out 99% of the human population.
I had two reactions to this: first, stop blaming everything on Russia and Central Eurasia. Second, why invent a "new flu," when there are all kinds of longstanding diseases out there that could easily reach pandemic proportions and wipe out over 90% of the population?
Did it HAVE to be 99%? Would 95% have been just as good? That was my thought about this element of the novel, and I confess, I started to feel like I needed to just let it go, because I was being a bit of a pill about it.
That said, though, I think I got hung up on it because without a convincing plague, the emotional impact of the text is diminished. And it seemed to me that Mandel really skirted the issue of the symptoms of this plague in order to focus on the post-apocalyptic outcome.
I don't mean to be a nudnik about this, but the thing is, if all I'm gonna have is a sudden onset of flu-like symptoms that will last for--at most--48 hours and then I'm gonna just... croak, basically, well, then, that's not so scary to me, really, particularly if I'm going to be feverish and hallucinating for the last 24 hours of that time.
The symptoms of things like smallpox and cholera and ebola and bubonic plague--now, to me, those are scary. You don't just die: you suffer and THEN die. So I started having a weird suspicion that Mandel wanted people to be frightened by the idea of a plague, but not too frightened, if you get my drift. And I felt like that was kind of a cop-out.
To me, that was also what happened in her depiction of "The Prophet." There was a lot of build up, and then... it was over. With a lot of things left unexplained and unresolved, and conveniently, everyone who could explain or resolve them was quickly dead. So... oh well!
I don't like when novels do that. If you paint yourself into a literary corner, you need to figure out how you're going to get us out of there.
I guess, ultimately, I found myself wishing that Mandel had narrowed her scope a bit, maybe, and done a bit more research. Because again, personally, I find it VERY hard to believe that humans suddenly lost all ability to figure out and reinstate things like electricity and running water and radios and airplanes.
I get that the human population died off and that the remaining humans had to do what they could to survive, but the knowledge was still there and all it would take was a willingness to find it and use it. This was what I found myself thinking throughout the novel, and oddly enough, at the end, Mandel herself suggests that this is in fact possible and plausible and may be happening.
But if that's the case, then I sort of feel like I was subjected to an emotional bait-and-switch: you seemed to be saying that the world as we knew it "ended," and would never return, but then, maybe... it can!
Which is it?
I think Mandel wanted to end on a more positive note than the rest of the novel struck, and I think that's understandable--most plague narratives do end with the end of the plague and a restoration of normality. But they don't undercut the overall existential significance of the situation they've just spent hundreds of pages describing--and this is what I felt that Mandel does, actually.
What I found interesting in Mandel's novel, however, is the way in which she incorporated the intertextual references to Shakespeare--this is something that, if there were world enough and time, I wouldn't mind teasing out a bit further.
I liked the character of Miranda in particular, and I kept wishing I had a better working knowledge of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," so I could pick up on the interconnections between the two works. Because in Shakespeare's play, Miranda is an innocent pawn and an essential optimist.
So I thought that it was interesting that it is Miranda who is the author of the "Station Eleven" comics that play such a key role in Mandel's text.
Similarly, I think it would be interesting to think about the way that Mandel's novel is tracing out issues of generational succession by organizing so much of the text around a famous actor who plays King Lear. Lear is all about self-aggrandizement and an inability to see the very clear (and very disastrous) future that one is creating with each (foolish) step or decision one takes and makes. I think this resonates with the larger idea of the plague that Mandel is using, and I think it is interesting that she interweaves this idea with Shakespeare's repeated use of "another world" or a fairy-tale dream world in "The Tempest"and "Midsummer Night's Dream."
I haven't said a lot about Kirsten Raymonde, the novel's central protagonist, because quite frankly, I found her a bit disappointing. I felt like I was sorta trapped in a cross between The Road and The Hunger Games while reading the episodes that dealt with her life. Kirsten Raymonde struck me as Katniss Everdeen on The Road.
On the one hand, she has clearly been traumatized by the apocalypse because of her year of living on the road (hello, Cormac McCarthy), but... she can't remember any of it.
So... we... I... just... yeah, okay, I don't get it. You imply trauma (in the form of rape and desperation and survivalist killing), but then basically dodge the implications of this for the character by repeatedly telling us, "she can't remember!"
So, why tell us? Again, it felt like emotional bait-and-switch to me. You're drawing me in with a premise, and then shoving it aside with no additional explanation or development.
Similarly, at the end of the novel, there's a sudden implication of ... ghosts. Wait, what? Now, 30 pages from the end, I'm getting... ghosts? I would have preferred to see this motif earlier and more often, actually--I think it would have worked with the other motifs Mandel was employing.
My overall evaluation of Station Eleven? It was okay: I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. I don't know that I'd really recommend it to anyone, but at the same time, I do think that, if you're drawn to post-apocalyptic literature, there are worse texts you could be reading, and Mandel's novel does do some interesting things and raise interesting ideas.
I just wish she had done more with them. As I said, I would have preferred a narrower scope and greater attention to detail. But that's just me, obviously. And for the record, Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award, so there are many, many people out there who would disagree with me on many of the points I've raised.