Arthur Leander, a famous actor, dies of a heart attack on stage in Toronto during a production of King Lear. That very same night, a flu pandemic begins a path of devastation that will end the world as we know it. Twenty years later Kirsten Raymonde, who was a child actress on stage when Arthur died, is part of The Traveling Symphony, a traveling orchestra and theater troupe bringing Shakespeare and music to the tattered remnants of civilization they find. As the Symphony arrives in the town of St. Deborah by the Water, they find the town in the clutches of a violent prophet who will not just let them walk away.
Station Eleven weaves back and forth in time to tell the story of Arthur Leander leading up to his fateful performance and the story of Kirsten in the twenty years after. Given how different these time periods are, I could see how many readers might feel that Emily St. John Mandel has taken two distinctly different novels and grafted them together with superglue. I am inclined to disagree: Mandel has taken great care to make sure the two stories are inseparable–so much so that I actually have the opposite problem with this novel, although for full disclosure I still liked the final product very much.
My problem is that it feels like everything is too connected. Even minor details and characters from Arthur’s story will echo in the post-apocalyptic future, and Mandel takes care to show the origin of items that show up in Kirsten’s timeline as she works through Arthur’s past. For example, Kirsten carries three items with her that used to belong to Arthur: two comic books from an extremely limited-run series called (natch) Station Eleven, and a beautiful glass paperweight. The comics were gifted to Kirsten by Arthur while they performed together in Lear. The paperweight was given to Kirsten on the night of Arthur’s death by the woman tasked with looking after the show’s child actors, and how it went from Arthur to Kirsten will be teased out over the course of the novel. I like the inclusion of the comics, which (1) are a nice link between the two storylines, (2) make sense as something that would have come into Kirsten’s possession, and (3) serve to sum up a lot of the novel’s themes. But the paperweight could have easily been edited out. It also links the two stories, but the comics already served that purpose and the paperweight’s transition from Arthur to Kirsten ultimately makes little sense and adds nothing to the story.
In tying the two narratives together, a little would have gone a long way and Mandel clearly prefers a lot. This also leaches away a lot of the novel’s surprises: because we know that Mandel is working overtime to fit the timelines together, it’s easy to guess what the secret meaning or identity of things Kirsten encounters will be.
Think of it this way: in the novel’s opening, as Arthur is dying onstage, an audience member named Jeevan leaps up from his seat to try (and fail) to save the actor’s life with CPR. In Mandel’s writing, this can’t be a random good samaritan. Instead, over the course of the book we will learn that Jeevan had a complicated history with Arthur. And since Kirsten doesn’t remember the first year of chaos following the pandemic, Mandel lets Jeevan have his own storyline to tell the story of the crash and reveal his history. This entire plotline could have been excised, although I admit Mandel imbues it with some great moments and deep humanity. I just think the narrative Jeevan adds about the collapse of civilization is already covered sufficiently in Kirsten’s story, and without his forced connections to Arthur the others Mandel includes might not feel so contrived.
If I’m being honest, part of me wants to criticize the way Mandel uses the comics to hammer in the novel’s themes, but I think her writing about it is so sumptuous that it’s hard to really take offense. I also really enjoyed the way Mandel made parallels between Shakespeare, who lived in a time of plague himself, and The Traveling Symphony. I wouldn’t call these references subtle since Mandel spells them out pretty clearly, but she handles it more deftly than a lot of the other themes.
It’s funny how often a review of a book you like sounds like a series of complaints, but I really did like this book (I promise). I think it’s because I liked the book that I wish these elements had been handled better. But in the end, I still recommend Station Eleven because for me Mandel’s beautiful writing overcomes the flaws with the structure. I finished this book two days ago and I’m still thinking about it–the last twenty pages in particular. That has to be a good sign.
Mandel does have a new novel releasing in 2019, and while I’m very curious to read it, the plot is also described as moving back and forth in time to explore the “tangle of lives caught up in” two big events. That sounds… a bit similar to this book. Hmm.