Travelling artists’ tale uneven but ambitious
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.