Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Be Your Own Book Club // May 2015: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel


In May, we read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, and then several of us promptly began worrying that every cough or succession of sirens was the beginning of the apocalypse.  I read a ton of post-apocalyptic novels, many of them in the Young Adult genre, but Station Eleven is different.  I don't know if it's because it was written with a different audience in mind, or if it was just a refreshing break for me personally, but I was pleasantly startled.  The novel read as a beautiful and concise set of circles that deals with human nature as much as survival in the face of the end of the world.

The plot begins on the night that the Georgia Flu breaks out in earnest, but the reader does not know this until the end of the first chapter.  Instead, we are thrust into dealing with the tragedy of an onstage heart attack, a theater thrown into chaos, and then the realization that none of the witnesses will live long enough to process what has happened.  I loved this opening- my heart was racing before a single futuristic confrontation. 

 "In the lobby, the people gathered at the bar clinked their glasses together. "To Arthur," they said. They drank for a few more minutes and then went their separate ways in the storm. Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.  

And that, my friends, fifteen pages into the story, is the first mention of the Georgian Flu.  *claps*

The apocalyptic main character is a girl in her early twenties named Kirsten, who effortlessly conveys for us the realities of this stark future (tattoos to represent those you've killed, missing teeth, the constant hunt for better gear) while providing the link to Before by being a child actor in the production that opens the novel.  Her best friend, August, was a light presence in the book, and I wanted more of him.  Her companions in the Traveling Symphony (clinging to the arts, they've adopted the slogan "Survival is Insufficient") were described just lightly enough to remind the reader that they are part of the fabric, only barely the focus of their part in the plot.  

A friend commented that as soon as she finished this book, she wanted to go back with an appreciation of the connections.  I totally agree.  As the book gently ping-pongs from Before and After, adding characters to the narrative with each chapter, the links begin to reveal themselves, and by the end I was whispering "I know who he is!" with sadness and excitement.  I've only had time to read this once, but I will read it again.  Probably in an airport- it's a good book for airports, and I mean this as a sincere compliment.

The parts of the book that stood out to me include: the poignancy of the plane that sealed itself up on the tarmac rather than expose anyone to the Georgian Flu (Don't think of the unspeakable descision, to keep the jet sealed rather than expose a packed airport to a fatal contagion. Don't think about what enforcing that descision may have required. Don't think about those last few hours on board.), the miracle feeling I got when the first new newspaper and the Museum of Civilization were explained, the humid difficulty of the cigarette Miranda smoked on the night she knew her marriage was ending, the desperation of Jeevan, who couldn't figure out what he wanted to do with his life. 
(Jeevan was actually the character who interested me least and confused me the most.  Was the point that was he was happier living his fractured, hard scrabble life after the flu than he could have been before the world ended?  I'd love your thoughts on this!)
My copy of the book came with a reader's guide that had some awesome questions, and I have a few questions of my own.  Please answer in the comments and let me know what you thought.  Our culture is full of "what-happens-after" narratives right now- how did Station Eleven measure up for you?

1. Does the novel have a main character?  Who would you consider it to be? (from the reader's guide)
I'm not sure.  I hover between Kirsten and Arthur.  Station Eleven as a comic book is a pretty heavy presence in both narratives.  If I had to choose, I'd probably say Arthur.
2. What do you think happened during the year Kirsten can't remember? (from the reader's guide)
This question and the way it remains unanswered in the book is unspeakably eerie.  I know that children can block things out easier than adults, and her being so young, and having such specific memories from before that lost year make it even creepier.  I'm not sure what made her forget, but I love how, in this future, there isn't the mental energy to let it torture her.  It's a lost year- she shrugs and continues on.  There is too much else to focus on.
3. What would you put in the Museum of Civilization.  In a world with no services or electricity, what would you miss the most?  What tangible item would become useless, but still be worth saving?
My mind goes straight to my phone.  I'm sure many people would spend time adjusting to no Internet access.  All the things that are most "valuable" now- car keys, cash, IDs, electronics- would become useless.  I don't know what I'd save.

4. Who was your favorite character?  What was your favorite story line (story circle)?
I loved August.  I wanted to know more about him. I loved how he "put to rest" the bodies he came across.  I loved his pact with Kirsten.  Miranda was a favorite, too.  I loved her project that was for nothing in particular but was the highlight of her life.

I'm actually getting lost reading through big chunks of the book while writing this post, so I think I'm going to leave it here.  Station Eleven is beautiful and haunting and strangely hopeful, and it's my favorite book we've read here so far. I'd love to hear what you thought.

In closing, I'll announce the June 2015 pick: The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan.  Here is a snippet from the Goodreads description: 

Marina Keegan's star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash. As her family, friends, and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, "The Opposite of Loneliness" went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord."  

This has been recommended to me more than once, and seems perfect for graduation season.  I also imagine it will be easy to dip in and out, reading bits and pieces without committing to an entire plot.  Please read along!

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