Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic and dystopian novel that traverses between the past and the future, which is set 20 years since the Georgia Flu wiped out the world’s population. Some readers label this as a sci-fi novel, but I don’t agree with them. The Georgia Flu, the only scientific part of the novel, is, I daresay, only a tool used by the author to put the characters in a bleak future where boundaries are erased and technologies are obsolete. In such a situation, themes on the insufficiency of survival, the preservation of art, and the perseverance of humanity can be explored.
But these themes strike me as beside the point. The overarching themes that I see in this novel are nostalgia and regret. Some parts in the past are written in the present tense while the parts in the future are written in the past tense. I find this a curious thing to do. Writing in the present tense gives a sense of urgency, and is the author trying to tell us that the past must be given our utmost attention to understand the things that come after it?
This is also apparent in the novel’s central character, Arthur Leander. He is a successful Hollywood actor who is thrice married and thrice divorced. He often looks back at his life, something that he feels has slipped away from him, and tries to make sense of his fortune and failures. He regrets a lot of things, and as he comes to terms with these, he dies of a heart attack during a stage production of the Shakespearean play King Lear, just right at the cusp of the Georgia Flu pandemic.
At that moment, Jeevan, ex-paparazzo and future paramedic, performs CPR on him but to no avail. This image has a huge impression on the eight-year-old child actress Kirsten. These two characters survive the pandemic but they are haunted by the memory of Arthur. Kirsten, still an actress in the future, collects articles mentioning Arthur as she and the Traveling Symphony move from one settlement to another. Jeevan, locked up in his brother’s apartment as people die at an exponential rate, recalls the day when he interviewed Arthur and, further than that, the days when he snapped photos of him and his first wife, Miranda.
There is a mystery story arc in the novel involving a prophet in the future that is well-thought but the discerning reader will have no problem in figuring out who is who and what is what. Clues are neatly planted along the way so it isn’t much of a surprise when the reader figures out things. In fact, there isn’t even a grand revelation, and I suspect that the mystery is also beside the point.
This novel kept me reading chapter after chapter, but I feel a slight disappointment at the prose. The images are vivid, but they somehow miss the target. Also, the horror of the pandemic and the bleakness of the future do not feel that horrendous and desolate. That doesn’t mean though that there are no luminous moments.
But first, there’s this moment, this lamp-lit room: Miranda sits on the floor beside Elizabeth, whose breath is heavy with wine, and she leans back until she feels the reassuring solidity of the door frame against her spine. Elizabeth, who is crying little, bites her lip and together they look at the sketches and paintings pinned to every wall. The dog stands at attention and stares at the window, where just now a moth brushed up against the glass, and for a moment everything is still. Station Eleven is all around them.
There are only a few copies of “Station Eleven,” but maybe coincidence will make me come across one.
[Read in April 2015.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[333 pages. Hardcover. A gift from TFG’s Christmas Auction.]