Station Eleven: Should We Be Reading Pandemic Fiction Right Now?

“Definitely wouldn’t recommend rereading Station Eleven this week,” Emily St. John Mandel tweeted on her fourth novel, in the steady climb of anxiety about COVID-19. Amidst closed borders, empty streets, and an extended MCO coming to an end, the eeriness of a pandemic novel is palpable. Pieced together in a collage of worlds before and after the fictional “Georgia Flu”, this 2014 novel appeared after a boom of the post-apocalyptic genre – but Station Eleven is a different beast. It never concerns itself with violence, heroism, or tribalism, but dips into an enthralling human-ness to the collapse of society.

Each story is wonderfully expressive, deeply vulnerable, and intricately woven together by one thread – Arthur Leander. The novel and its pandemic begin as Arthur ends, collapsing of a heart attack on a stage production of King Lear. Yet, Arthur’s story has only just started, as Mandel winds the readers through a patchwork of his triumphs and mistakes and the various narratives branching from him for over half the novel. It is, at first, undoubtedly a confusing trail to be led down. There is an art to how slowly and methodologically the connections in Station Eleven reach any resolution, but the inevitably satisfying conclusions justify any initial puzzling-ness. 

But, if you’re stuck at home looking for your next read, a novel about a world-ending disease is probably the last thing you’re thinking of picking up.

Station Eleven is a genre-bending slow dance into a parallel universe where everything goes wrong. 20 years after the Georgia Flu toppled more than 99% of the human population, Kirsten Raymonde wanders through a world that has settled from the chaos of the pandemic’s deathly surge. Having played a non-speaking role in the King Lear production with Arthur, she continued acting after the so-called “End of the World” with a troupe of performing artists called the Travelling Symphony. I write “so-called” here because Mandel makes sure to hammer home the simple theme that nothing really ends. Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony roam on horse-drawn wagons from settlement to settlement performing a variety of concertos and plays. The lines of classical literature and science fiction are often crossed in the novel, from the staging of Shakespeare, to Star Trek quotes carved into the wagons and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm, to the sci-fi comics she carries in her bag – gifted to her by Arthur, two issues of “Dr. Eleven”. 

Kirsten, still tangled in the memories of Arthur’s kindness to her as a child and his strangely timely death on stage, searches for his memorabilia left over in surviving celebrity magazine clippings and TV guides. Through gossipy headlines and paparazzi pictures, the novel paints a portrait of a man in and out of marriages, full of conflicted relationships with his close friends, ex-wives, and his young son. Even long dead and gone, his life domino-ed a series of events in the Georgia Flu’s wake.

Like her descriptions of Arthur, Mandel’s snapshots of the past are often ambivalent – in tales of misplaced anxieties so insignificant to the future, of the crushing strains of commercialism and capitalism that drive people to acts of cruelty, of idly taking advantage of the privileges of modern life. “That’s what passes for a life…that’s what passes for happiness, for most people…they’re like sleepwalkers…” The past is described in material technologies wondrous to those raised in a world without electricity, and bittersweet to those with any memories of it. Symbols disjoint and connect the two timelines without moral discernment. There is no “good or bad” before. There is no “good or bad” after. Life merely continues.

That’s what passes for a life…that’s what passes for happiness, for most people…they’re like sleepwalkers…

Emily St. John Mandel

If Mandel’s writings on air-travel spreading a disease that results in global contagion, panic buying, lockdowns, and road-blocks sound disturbingly familiar to you, you might be tempted to assume that the novel is “predicting the future”. Allow me to ease your minds by saying that any virus as quick and deadly as the Georgia Flu would have burned itself out long before the events of Station Eleven could become a reality. 

Still, there is a place for the beauties and terrors of Station Eleven’s post-apocalyptic future in a world so uncertain. It is not a love-letter to a tech-less world, but rather a plea – imploring the reader to appreciate the mundanities of day-to-day life. From Kirsten’s wide-eyed wondrous memories of a glowing refrigerator, to her bitter longing for “the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.” Things so miraculous to her, things so everyday to us. There is a need for novels of tragedy in times of tragedy, just as there is an importance for all arts in these worrying days both as creative outlets and anthropological preservations of human life. Mandel writes with a fierce passion for these arts in the Traveling Symphony furthering Shakespeare performances in cult-held towns, in the writer of Dr. Eleven inking each galaxy-speckled comic panel in the woes of failing relationships, and in a disabled veteran continuing his written project as the world collapses around him. 

I will not divulge the detailed fibres of the novel’s narrative further, as the gorgeous delicateness in which the stories and characters find themselves tied together is a treat to unravel without any spoilers. I simply dare you to read Station Eleven while the world is still on hold. Push aside the unease for a lesson about humanity in the face of a pandemic. We probably won’t be grilling squirrels over a bonfire any time soon – but if it does get there, humans will always have stories and art, even at the “End of the World”. 

Stay safe and sane everyone.

Written by Kishana Kuhendran