Book Review: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Cover of book

From the cover of Station Eleven | Image courtesy of Spinoff

My recent read Station Eleven wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be. Here’s my take on it for my Arts Criticism course. 

Upon its release in 2014, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven received one accolade after the next. It was shortlisted as a National Book Award finalist and drew praise from authors ranging from Ann Patchett to Erin Morgenstern. And certainly, this post-apocalyptic novel is something to admire. It’s equal parts haunting and harrowing and filled with imagery from page one. Mandel’s characters have depth and their yearnings will stay with you long after the story has ended. But still, there’s something about the book that seems to be missing. Much like Mandel’s imagined flu pandemic, the overreaching plot of Station Eleven leaves emptiness and dissatisfaction in its wake.

The concept itself is promising. The world is the 21st century as we know it – just without the 90% of the population wiped out by the Georgia Flu. Survivors are forced to settle into provincial communities or take to the roads, which is a dangerous proposition in this era of martial law. The meat of Mandel’s story takes place two decades after the onset of the Flu. The world is now one of relative peace but lacking in the things that make a modern civilization: technology, fuel, medicine and intercontinental travel. From this emerges the Traveling Symphony.

With the Symphony, Mandel brings an atypical element to post-apocalyptic fiction. The Symphony is a nomadic troupe of actors and musicians dedicated to keeping the arts alive. Championing a motto borrowed from Star Trek, “survival is insufficient,” they trek up and down the region that was the Great Lakes ensuring the beautiful things of the past aren’t forgotten. In a genre where characters are usually concerned with zombie attacks or radioactive poisoning, Mandel’s are instead preoccupied with bringing Shakespeare and Beethoven to the clusters of survivors. And they do so with relative success; by Year 20 the Symphony’s presence is welcomed throughout the region until an encounter with a violent prophet threatens their existence.

Unfortunately, the dramatic potential of Station Eleven is wasted in backstory. Mandel takes a then-and-now approach to drawing her protagonists, contrasting their pre-Flu decades in Toronto and Los Angeles with the years of the pandemic. We ever-so-slowly learn that the characters are all connected – Hollywood actor Arthur and his comic book-drawing first wife Miranda, child actor Kirsten and paparazzo-turned-EMS-responder Jeevan – their lives all overlapping amid ripples of events. But the novel is a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s hard to tell who’s meant to be a main character and who’s supposed to be on the sidelines. Miranda is clearly an important figure, but her storyline ends abruptly in favor of an airport full of survivors. The opposite occurs as well: Arthur’s childhood friend, the biography author “V,” is much-alluded to but never brought into the story. The humanizing of these characters is beautifully-done, of course; never will you feel so moved by the absence of long-distance calling. But description alone does not a story make, which is where Station Eleven falls flat.

Frankly, the novel isn’t exciting. In a time of The Hunger Games and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Mandel’s novel fails to thrill like its sci-fi peers. Here, action is sacrificed again and again in favor of storyline. The “unspeakable years” from which the savage-but-sweet Kirsten earned her scars are never described, their potential juice ignored to further a dead-brother plot device. Jeevan’s trek from a Toronto penthouse to a riverside settlement is glossed over, his peaceful new life and family appearing without explanation. The action that does remain feels like a last-minute addition. The Symphony’s final showdown with the prophet is rushed and the fateful link that binds the protagonists feels empty upon its reveal.

It could be argued that the lack of action is what makes Mandel’s novel a standout from its peers. Instead of relying on shock-jock tactic to entertain the novel is poignant in its reflection of what makes a civilization. What do you turn to when the world doesn’t make sense anymore? In this post-apocalyptic era, morality takes a backseat to survival. Killing is no longer evil – it’s a sometimes-necessary act commemorated by tattoos inked on wrists and forearms. Two knives, two kills: these are the procedures that underlie our once-connected planet. And Mandel is an undeniably skilled writer. Her characters are all vivid and raw; it’s easy to recognize yourself in the dilemmas of both their pre and post-pandemic lives. “Hell is the absence of the people you long for,” she writes, borrowing from Sartre as the double-inked Kirsten Raymonde.

But as far as entertainment value goes, Station Eleven just doesn’t stand up. It has all the facets of a captivating sci-fi story but does not satisfy in it execution. True, Mandel’s prose earned her praise and acclaim from even George R.R. Martin. But sci-fi needs more than just pretty words to succeed; it requires daring and adventure that you don’t find in more straightforward genres. Yes, survival may be insufficient, but so is Station Eleven.

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