The bitter tragedy
of human life
is that it is all too fragile,
our lives are written
not in the rock forever,
but upon the all too fragile
and transitory parchment
and of human flesh.
[Sermon after World Trade Center attack]
Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic world that follows a pandemic of the Georgian Flu. Georgia, the Eurasian country, not the state. This latest assault on humanity arrived in North America on a plane from Russia.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, set in a burned-out shell of the United States, is a physically altered natural world, where the sun never shines and survival is cruel and heartless. This is the usual standard of dystopian fiction. A haunting story of a father desperate to retain his humanity and save his son.
Station Eleven, however, is a more sanitized apocalyptic story, picking up twenty years after the pandemic, and is set along what had been the Canadian and American borders. It is more a mystery than a descriptive survival story with cannibalistic humans and parched earth; it lightly touches on how they stay alive physically but concentrates more on the mental aspects of their new lives.
This now sparsely populated and undefined land, freed of political boundaries, is an unfettered world where nature reclaims everything man has tamed. The survivors of the nearly extinct human race, in a blink of an eye, must face the total loss of everyone and everything. The question becomes – now what?
“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”
This multifaceted and multi-voiced story takes highly evolved mankind with its technology and global reach and reduces him to nomadic life. Unlike our early ancestors, these newest nomads have evidence of a past history: rusted cars strung like beads on a broken necklace, crestfallen houses and darken light poles. The further the world travels into the future, the fewer people understand the old world and the old ways.
In the last days of the old world, in a Toronto theater, a Shakespearean play is ongoing featuring the world famous actor, Arthur Leander, playing King Lear. Arthur, in what appears to the audience as a highly dramatic moment, collapses and dies of a heart attack on stage. Unknown to the theater crowd, death has been twining among their seats and in a matter of three weeks, most of them, as well as most of the world, will be dead.
Arthur had just received two copies of a comic book series, entitled “Station Eleven”, designed by his ex-wife, Miranda. Before stepping on stage, he gifted one set to a charming eight-year-old actress, Kirsten Raymonde.
Kirsten and her brother survive and join the millions of people on the run. She carries with her a few comfort items that include these comics. The struggles of the first year on their own mutes her past; the last thing she remembers clearly is the play, the comics, and Arthur.
Twenty years after the pandemic, most survivors have settled into small communities. Outliers remain nomads caravanning along crumbly roads, as predators, traders and in Kirsten’s case, a caravan of musicians and actors calling known as The Traveling Symphony.
Sometimes the Traveling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.
Kirsten, now 28, while scrounging for supplies and food in abandoned houses, obsessively searches for Arthur in old newspapers and magazines. When she finds a picture or a story, we are transported backward into his life. Arthur’s parallel story line merges seamlessly and is not a distraction. Other survivors who knew Arthur including his best friend, Clark and one of his three ex-wives, Elizabeth tie the two stories together. The stories come closer and closer together finally merging at the end of the book.
Where’s the mystery you might ask? It begins with The Traveling Symphony’s stop in the community of St. Deborah By The Water; a community much like Jonestown with a similar cult prophet. The Symphony had stopped there a couple of years earlier, prior to the prophet’s arrival, and a pregnant Symphony member and her husband stayed there to have the child. This newest Symphony stop was to retrieve them and to entertain the community with a Shakespearean play.
Things seemed a little off; their friends were not there. When they found three grave markers with their friend’s names on them, they bolted town, only to discover a teenage girl hiding in one of the caravan wagons. A teenage girl expected to be the prophet’s next wife.
How far will the prophet go to recover his “bride”? Rumor had it that their friends were still alive and heading for another community known as Museum of Civilization. What really happened to their friends? What is the fate of the cast members that disappear on the way to the new community? How does Arthur’s story fit into the picture?
This isn’t a book that will make your hair stand on end like a Stephen King novel. Nonetheless I found myself curious and entertained throughout. Somehow, despite the tragedy of the pandemic, the survivors have a beautiful world in which to begin again. The sun rises and falls. The earth stands ready to help man get back up on his feet.
Recommended reading. A nice read on a long road-trip.