“I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.”
In New York City, an acclaimed actor collapses in the middle of his King Lear performance. Hours later, the world as we know it is over. Station Eleven is easily one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, in part because of its structure. Although it sounds like a science fiction novel, Station Eleven is a complicated book to summarize or explain. Given the current panic over Corvid-19, I thought it would be a timely read — but I suspect it would be just as absorbing during a less frantic time.
On the night the book opens, the Georgian Flu has arrived in North America: within two days, most of the population will be dead. Some of the principal characters are members of the Traveling Symphony, a caravan of musicians and actors who visit the towns in their circuit and bring back to life the beauty of the old world, if only for a night — allowing survivors to listen to Beethoven and Shakespeare. Their motto comes from Star Trek Voyager: SURVIVAL IS INSUFFICIENT. After a run-in with a strange figure known as the Prophet, several members of the company disappear, and the survivors choose to regroup at an old airport known as the Museum of Civilization, where trinkets from the time before the end have been saved. But these characters are only one of the layers of the novel; there are several planes of narrative that intersect in the lives of a few individuals who appear throughout the novel in different ages. Structurally, I was reminded of Catch-22, because there’s a lot of jumping between times and characters here, but the connections between the different stories grow and grow as the novel progresses. One of the narratives is a fictional story within the story, a SF graphic novel about humans on a space station (guess what it’s called) who escaped from Earth’s takeover by aliens, only to find themselves pining for the light of the sun again.
I imagine this book will be very popular with English professors in a few years, because there’s a lot to unravel and talk about here. One of the elements from the SF series, for instance, involves people who live in a part of the station called the Undersea, who can imagine no happiness or future for themselves until they somehow find a way back to Earth. But this waiting-for-life attitude, this sleepwalking, is also commented on in the more conventional parts of the novel: people who have done what’s expected of them, but they’ve never found their passion in life, never truly awoken and lived. One of our characters, Jeevan, was like that — until that night a man collapsed on the stage, and he found his calling.
Station Eleven is an absolutely memorable novel, one I suspect I’ll read again — if only because its structure makes absorbing the whole story in one pass unlikely. It’s unusual, but unexpectedly compelling.