Station Eleven, the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel, opens with a famous actor, Arthur Leander, playing King Lear on stage. When he collapses, a paramedic in training jumps up onto stage to deliver CPR – too late. Walking home from the theatre in the show, the paramedic gets a call from a friend, an ER doctor, who warns about a deadly strand of flu that is quickly spreading.
The story then shifts to the parking lot of an abandoned Walmart, where a ragtag travelling symphony rehearses. Slowly, we learn that Arthur's death, 20 years previously, was part of a much larger epidemic that killed much of the world's population. There is no mass transport, no electricity, gas has gone stale and children who were born after the flu epidemic struggle to understand the idea of an engine. But some of the problems of our world still remain. On the side of the symphony's caravan is a quote from an episode of Star Trek Voyager that sums up their purpose: Because survival is insufficient.
The novel jumps back and forth between the world just before the outbreak and 20 years after. It's when we learn that one of the members of the symphony collects magazine clippings about Arthur Leander that we start to understand the extent to which these seemingly disparate stories will come together.
Lana Wachowski, one of the directors who adapted David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas for the screen, told The New Yorker that the novel "represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end." Like Cloud Atlas, the back-and-forth movements in Station Eleven allow the author to make thematic connections across time. But Station Eleven takes the device an exciting step further. It uses the movements in time to build an incredible emotional depth into its characters.
In a scene between two of Arthur's ex-wives, for example, Miranda is just leaving her relationship with the actor, while Elizabeth is soon to marry him. During their tense conversation, the narration zooms forward to the details of Miranda's new, post-divorce life in Toronto, while we also see Elizabeth of the future as she "packs to move into the house with the crescent-moon light by the pool." The story then circles back to the present conversation. This movement, a glimpse forward to growth and change, under the weight of our knowing that Arthur died a lonely man, leaves every word of the conversation between the two women loaded with meaning and nuance.
The result is a novel that carries a magnificent depth. It captures a feeling that I recently experienced while watching Richard Linklater's film Boyhood, which was filmed with the same actors over a period of 12 years. In Boyhood and in Station Eleven, we get to see something that is so difficult to show or feel – how small moments in time link together. And how these moments add up to a life. As the novel later says, it's like "the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together."
St. John Mandel's three previous novels, The Lola Quartet, Last Night in Montrealand The Singer's Gun, could be described as literary with a slant of noir. Station Eleven also uses some of conventions of genre – there is suspense, science fiction and elements of horrors – but this is undoubtedly a literary work. It's a sweeping look at where we are, how we got here and where we might go. While her previous novels are cracking good reads, this is her best yet. It feels as though she took the experience earned from her previous writing and braided it together to make one gleaming strand.
Gleaming might sound like an odd choice of words to describe a post-apocalyptic story, but one of the most striking things about this novel is how it holds our current world in a golden light. After the epidemic, a museum of civilization is set up to display things that are ordinary to us, like a stiletto, newspaper or iPhone. To those still alive, the objects take on an otherworldly feel of the amazing world that came before. It allows St. John Mandel to gently point out the extent to which we take our technology and conveniences for granted. As one character thinks, "Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?" How many times have we all rushed through an airport, rather than stopping to watch the grace of a plane taking to the air?
For such an epic book, Station Eleven ends quietly. The loose ends are tied, each character is put to rest and the final few connections come together. There is no grand revelation as those come throughout the main body of the book. Rather than feeling anti-climatic, the ending is just right. The sun goes down, a character glances out a window and a feeling comes to his mind. It is a small moment, like those countless moments that continue to happen regardless of the state of the world. The small and big moments link together in time. And in that way, a life is lived.