Trav­el­ling artists’ tale un­even but am­bi­tious

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Rory Run­nells

SEleven is the fourth novel by young Cana­dian nov­el­ist Emily St. John Man­del, noted on many crit­ics’ lists for her mys­tery-tinged books, es­pe­cially The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quar­tet. In Sta­tion Eleven, she at­tempts a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic, dystopian novel about a wan­der­ing band of ac­tors and mu­si­cians, The Trav­el­ling Sym­phony, left in a world dec­i­mated by a pan­demic. It’s awk­wardly hinged to a re­al­ist lit­er­ary story, told in flash­back, of Arthur Leander, an ag­ing Hol­ly­wood ac­tor who dies on­stage at the start of the novel. He is the cen­tre around which all the other novel’s char­ac­ters re­volve. Their con­nec­tions in the post-civ­i­liza­tion por­tion, as well as in flash­backs, pro­vide the am­bi­tious, some­what-clumsy main nar­ra­tive. The dif­fi­culty: nei­ther Arthur, in the flash­backs, nor Kirsten, a child ac­tress present at Arthur’s death (and 20 years later a mem­ber of the Trav­el­ling Sym­phony), are in­ter­est­ing pro­tag­o­nists. They serve their pur­pose, to be sure. Kirsten is the fo­cus of what is es­sen­tially a stan­dard road ad­ven­ture, en­coun­ter­ing ghostly rem­nants and hope­ful com­mu­ni­ties of this brave new world. The Tem­pest ref­er­ence is apt, given that her troupe only per­forms Shake­speare, though the choice seems ar­bi­trary. As for Arthur, ev­ery­one is linked to him, how­ever ten­u­ously, in the flash­backs. And where does Sta­tion Eleven come in? This is the sci-fi el­e­ment. Arthur’s first wife, Mi­randa, had cre­ated graphic nov­els about Dr. Eleven and a great utopian un­der­sea world. Kirsten re­ceived them on the day of Arthur’s death, at the start of the pan­demic. So had Arthur’s son Tyler who, as a boy, took them (along with the Book of Rev­e­la­tions) as guides to how the de­stroyed world should be re­built: his way. Kirsten rec­og­nizes the ref­er­ences when the show­down comes be­tween good (the Sym­phony) and bad (Arthur’s grown son, an evil wan­der­ing prophet). Again, we en­counter a ref­er­ence point that isn’t in the fab­ric of the story, but rather grafted on for ef­fect. What we hear from the Eleven sto­ries is poetic, if cur­sory, but they don’t end up mat­ter­ing ex­cept as a plot de­vice, when the reader needs them as character in­sight. Yet Man­del’s skill at de­scrib­ing the col­lapsed world draws the reader in. An early sin­gle-page chap­ter sim­ply of­fers “an in­com­plete list” of the end of con­tem­po­rary life: “no more div­ing into pools... no more ball­games un­der the lights... no more coun­tries.” We and the world re­al­ize it is all gone. A beau­ti­ful set piece has Kirsten and her friend search­ing for lost com­pan­ions, com­ing upon a house with the bones of the dead still in them, the fur­ni­ture and knick-knacks silent wit­nesses to a now barely re­mem­bered civ­i­liza­tion. They take what they need, as they must, but almost rit­u­al­is­ti­cally. Here the power of Man­del’s writ­ing makes one wish for a more ur­gent, con­vinc­ing nar­ra­tive. It isn’t there, and the frag­ments and small in­sights per­haps aren’t quite enough to make the novel a suc­cess. Her tal­ent is un­mis­tak­able, and one an­tic­i­pates her next novel with the hope the power she puts into in­ti­mate de­tails out­weighs the awk­ward grand de­sign she chose for Sta­tion Eleven. Rory Run­nells is the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Man­i­toba As­so­ci­a­tion of Play­wrights.

Sta­tion Eleven

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