I have been under the weather (such an interesting phrase, as I can’t remember ever being OVER the weather? But I digress…) this week. I have had a sinus infection, which has made reading difficult due to the “skull being crushed with a vise” headache I have had, but we carry on, do we not?
(We totally do.)
At any rate, the best time to review a book about an illness that wipes out most of human life is probably when you’re not feeling well, amiright? Station Eleven is one of those kinds of books, so … let us begin, shall we?
I’m not going to imply that if you’ve read one post-apocalyptic novel you’ve read them all, but — in some ways you kind of have. Terrible event (in this case, a flu), breakdown of society, loss of the technologies that most of us have come to depend on: those are fairly standard, and they’re all present here. So what makes this worth reading? The way it stresses the importance of art.
The novel opens with a production of King Lear. During the play, Arthur Leander, the actor who is playing Lear, dies of a heart attack. The rest of the novel features characters who intersect with Leander in some way, and the impact that intersection has caused. Now, admittedly, I am doped up on prescription drugs in an effort to knock the infection out of my system, but I think that those intersections — where people connect, how they connect, how Leander has drawn them together or apart — are the first part of St. John Mandel’s commentary on the importance of art and culture, and the way that people are connected through and by it. If not for Arthur Leander’s position as an actor, if not for that production of Shakespeare, the people in this novel would not find their lives bound together; because of the play and the actor, though, they are connected to each other even after what could be deemed the end of the world.
The novel also stresses the importance of art and culture through both the Traveling Symphony -- a troupe of actors and musicians that go from settlement to settlement to bring them music and theatre so it will not be forgotten -- and the Museum of Civilization, designed so that the survivors have a place to look back at the past, connect with it, and look to the future.
There is a lot going on in Station Eleven -- aside from the end of the world, there is a cult, a kidnapping, some plays, and a comic book -- but the center of it all is this: even when the apocalypse looms-- even after it strikes -- art is important and can bring us together.
That's a lesson that doesn't suck at all.
For more about Emily St. John Mandel, click here.