I’ve been thinking about Station Eleven a lot recently. I finished reading the book not too long ago, and my wife finished it just the other day. My most recent short story (sent out! Watch out rejection #3/acceptance #1!) is really influenced by Mandel’s book in some key ways.
The more I think about Station Eleven, the more impressive I find it. If you consider the plot of the book, or even the premise of the book, there’s nothing really exciting or new there. It’s a plague narrative, a story about the before and after of a huge sickness that wipes out most of the human population of the world. Stephen King’s The Stand is the natural comparison. The novel follows a few characters, popping back and forth between their lives before and after the event. There’s a religious cult, whose impact on the narrative is far from surprising and even nears predictable and stereotypical. The post-plague narrative partially follows a traveling theater company/symphony, which feels sort of contrived and easy as a metaphor for the need to thrive even as we survive. In other words, what actually happens in the book is kind of unremarkable.
And yet Station Eleven suffers not at all from this–in fact, it kind of relies on it to work. Mandel knows she’s dealing with a popular trope here (the plague story), and much of what she does in setting up action or setting is to draw on the reader’s knowledge of this kind of story, forcing us to fill in the spaces she leaves bare. I love stories that do this–stories that recognize implicitly what they are and make use of that. Station Eleven uses a familiar story housed in a predictable plot, but the effect is one of stability that is necessary with the fractured narrative she presents. The path of the story is erratic, jumping back and forth between times, places, and characters. The narrative is disorienting enough that the familiarity of the plot and arc serves as a really wonderful counterpoint for the reader.
Beyond all of that, of course, Emily St. John Mandel can just flat out write. The prose is unbelievably good. Enviously good. Reading this book was like eating a meal I’ve had all my life, but this time it was prepared by a world class cook. It has the terror of a plague narrative and the hope of a survival story. It’s wonderful.