A flu pandemic wipes out 99% of humanity in this much-tipped novel about memory, art and survival.
In her much-tipped fourth novel, longlisted last week for a US National Book award, Canadian author Emily St John Mandel makes something subtle and unusual out of elements that have become garishly overfamiliar. A virulent new strain of flu that "exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth", wiping out 99% of humanity; characters holed up in tower blocks while the world collapses around them; "unspeakable years" in which the unlucky survivors walk blasted roads in search of vestiges of civilisation; crazed prophets leading murderous cults and "ferals" leaping out from behind bushes. We all know the script, as Mandel drily notes when one character begins a supermarket sweep of bottled water and tinned food: "Jeevan's understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he'd seen a lot of action movies."
But whereas most apocalypse novels push grimly forward into horror or dystopia, Station Eleven skips back and forth between the pre-flu world and Year Twenty after global collapse, when the worst is over and survivors have banded together into isolated settlements. Gradually, the book builds cumulative power as connections are made between the two time frames, and characters who do or don't survive: including Jeevan, a paparazzo who planned to become a paramedic; Kirsten, a child actor who grows up to perform Shakespeare after the pandemic; and Miranda, whose creative energies were poured into a hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven which miraculously survives, becoming both a totem of the old world and a distorted mirror of the new.
The man who links them all, Arthur Leander, is a famous actor who dies on stage just before the Georgia Flu sweeps the world. Though he doesn't experience the catastrophe, his story is at the heart of the book, and this is typical of Mandel's roving, slantwise focus. For the last night on earth before the lights start to go out, she dwells on the production of King Lear which is Arthur's last; in the post-pandemic world, she follows Kirsten and the rest of the Travelling Symphony, a peripatetic band of actors and musicians whose motto, taken from Star Trek, is "survival is insufficient". They struggle and squabble – someone has scribbled "Hell is other people" inside one of their caravans, and someone else has crossed out "other people" and written "flutes" – but find safety and purpose as well as "moments of transcendent beauty" in their shared endeavour.
Such frozen moments appear as tableaux throughout the book: fake snow falling on the cast of King Lear as they gather around the fallen Arthur; Miranda gazing from a twilit beach at huge lit-up ships out to sea as the world comes to a standstill; the flat, eerie panels of Miranda's Station Eleven. Unlike Anne Washburn in her recent play Mr Burns, which also featured a travelling band of actors in a dystopic future America, Mandel isn't interested in how apocalypse might act upon art: this is very much a novel about individual rather than collective destiny. The glacial calm of her prose extends to the characters, so that while the book is visually stunning, dreamily atmospheric and impressively gripping, we never feel the urgency and panic of global disaster, let alone its moral weight.
But perhaps that is beside the point. Station Eleven is not so much about apocalypse as about memory and loss, nostalgia and yearning; the effort of art to deepen our fleeting impressions of the world and bolster our solitude. Mandel evokes the weary feeling of life slipping away, for Arthur as an individual and then writ large upon the entire world. In Year Twenty, Kirsten, who was eight when the flu hit, is interviewed about her memories, and says that the new reality is hardest to bear for those old enough to remember how the world was before. "The more you remember, the more you've lost," she explains – a sentiment that could apply to any of us, here and now.