Station Eleven: “Survival is Insufficient”

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven begins with a modern world much like our own, filled with celebrities, paparazzi, and child actors as well as normal people just struggling to determine their place in life, hopping from one lackluster job to the next, until finally achieving an idea of what fulfillment might look like. But suddenly the familiar, handheld smartphones and the nightly theatrical performances of King Lear fall silent as a devastating outbreak of what the novel calls “Georgia flu” decimates the global population. Tracing the resulting chaos, and following a revolving set of characters, Station Eleven depicts groups of Midwestern residents (locals as well as those stranded in the aftermath of the pandemic) in their attempts to come to terms with what it has lost, figure out how to rebuild, and recover a sense of normalcy.

In Station Eleven, St. John Mandel depicts a post-apocalyptic world unlike many of her predecessors’ in that she focuses on a divide between before and after: how adults cope in comparison to their children, how the memories that only a few retain begin to slowly fade, how quickly any sense of normalcy disappears. And yet, it remains remarkably hopeful, with the Traveling Symphony’s (a small troupe of Shakespearean actors and musicians) tagline reminding the reader, “survival is insufficient” (119). Even in this ravaged world, art persists. The novel urges us to seek out beauty in the world. It exhorts us to not take modernity’s benefits, such as electricity or communication across oceans, for granted. For who’s to say that some pandemic won’t wipe away all trace of the technological wonders we forget to marvel at: “[N]o more internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken” (32). The novel’s lists poetically enumerate the familiar social exchanges rendered impossible in this dystopian future.

Frequent callbacks to the time before civilization’s collapse also provide relatable insights into our fractured relationship with the modern world. One such moment appears in a flashback scene between Arthur Leander, a famous stage actor, and Clark, one of his old friends. The two meet in a restaurant, large and dimly lit. Almost immediately, Clark notices the disconnect that had grown between himself and his friend. As they catch up, Clark notices the way Arthur expresses himself, repeating phrases from recent magazine profiles, broadly emphasizing his exploits through loose, animated gestures. He is struck by “the terrible gulf of years between eighteen and fifty,” as he recognizes that “Arthur wasn’t having dinner with a friend…so much as having dinner with an audience” (112). Through subtle scenes such as this, St. John Mandel navigates the blurry space between performance and reality, revealing what can happen to friendships in a celebrity-obsessed, digital culture mediated by omnipresent camera phones. St. John Mandel also critiques modern culture when, in another scene from Clark’s life before the apocalypse, he sees himself in colleague’s description of “high functioning sleepwalkers” who “‘think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction’” (163). Indeed, she questions the very nature of what we call happiness, leaving the answer ambiguous at best—up for audience interpretation and contemplation long after the 333 pages have been read.

Such open-ended questions only add to the intrigue of the novel, especially as the reader notices the delicate balance and meshing of high culture and pop culture references in the text. Kirsten, a pivotal character, performs Shakespeare as a member of the Traveling Symphony, and yet “‘her favorite line of text is from Star Trek’” (120). Kirsten was a child actress when the world collapsed She now travels along Lake Michigan, performing to audiences in rapture at entertainment recalling better days. In fact, the significance of art is a pervasive thread throughout the text; in the time after the pandemic, characters struggling to come to grips with all they have lost begin to memorialize artifacts in a “museum of civilization,” regardless of whether or not these remnants help with their survival. Instead of focusing on mere existence, then, the characters ponder what it means to be human, and wonder whether art and culture are essential to human identity. The Traveling Symphony, for instance, sometimes “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,” but then the difficulties of collapsed civilization return, and “it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it” (119). This grappling between nostalgia for a past world and embrace of a new order structures the novel, as its chapters move forward and back in time; still, its plot progression depicts characters’ reinvigorated attempts to retain that past while adapting to current necessities.

For fans of post-apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, Station Eleven provides a fresh take on the genre. The diverse cast of characters the story develops and then intertwines allows readers to relate and empathize with a broad spectrum of experiences, regrets, and ideals. Kirsten is one such character, and, throughout the novel, she carries with her a reminder of the beauty of the past world: a scrap of paper, a scene from a comic called Station Eleven, the novel’s own namesake. Though she only holds one page of this fragmented text, it captures her own longing, its dialogue poignantly stating “‘we long only to go home…We dream of sunlight, we dream of walking on earth…We have been lost for so long…We long only for the world we were born into’” (302). Kirsten, like the rest of the characters, confronts her own legacy, the narrative telling us, “first we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered” (187). Throughout the novel, the lines between performance and life blur, but though these characters have been forced to trudge their way through a tarnished world, they retain their ability to find and create beauty independent of the catastrophic event that seeks to define them.

Ally Geoffray is a junior majoring in English Literature and Professional Writing at Purdue.

 

Purdue Exponent: An English Major’s Playground

HISTORY

The Exponent has been a significant news source at Purdue since 1889. It was originally a monthly magazine but became a daily in 1906. The Exponent remained in the Purdue Memorial Union’s basement from the 1930s to 1989, when it moved to its current location at 460 Northwestern Avenue, becoming the first college publication to construct a building from its own funding. Today, it is an independent newspaper, primarily run by students and published by the non-profit Purdue Student Publishing Foundation. The web magazine began in 1996 and the daily print changed to two days a week, Mondays and Thursdays, in 2017.

MISSION

As both a business and an educational institution, the Exponent’s mission is to serve undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and local residents. The newspaper has seven full-time professionals who work with its many student employees, and all student staff members receive stipends for their labor. Reporters and editors cover the campus, city, and sports news, alongside editors for copy, design, photos, and graphics. There is something for everyone at the Exponent. Its alumni have gone go on to be politicians, lawyers, professors, judges, advertisers, executives, journalists, and more. This student newspaper provides real experience and has produced Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as Emmy and Oscar winners.

Among the one hundred students employed by newspaper, English majors stand out. Below are just a few of them:

ALISA REYNYA, ENGLISH LITERATURE

Alisa Reynya, a junior studying English literature, has been at the Exponent for about two and a half years. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything but English,” she says.

Alisa is the editor-in-chief, overseeing the newsroom that consists of campus, city, sports, photos, graphics, and copy desks. The students at the Exponent have complete creative control over the content. Alisa decides what stories and visuals will be front page, when to use or not to use a source’s name and information, and what areas of coverage editors and reporters focus on. Alisa’s leadership requires her to answer a lot of questions and make many final decisions, something that most college students do not get to experience.

As editor-in-chief, Alisa has moved on from reporting, but she has written a few editorials when the senior staff has taken stance on a pressing issue at Purdue or in the larger journalism community. For instance, Alisa wrote an editorial on behalf of the editorial board when Purdue announced, to much controversy, that it would be allowing a Chick-fil-A on campus in September 2019: https://www.purdueexponent.org/opinion/article_50a744e3-c585-5993-8eab-9a9fbcb01fbe.html

Alisa says that working for the newspaper has “taken me further out of my comfort zone than I ever imagined possible. I’ve learned to talk to complete strangers, make fast and strategic decisions, take risks, and experiment.” Even students who do not pursue a career in journalism, can learn a lot from their experience: “It teaches you to actively listen and ask detailed questions, to consolidate information, and to write quickly, concisely and accurately under a fast deadline.” Reporting for the Exponent looks great on your resume and it also gives you the chance to work with people who are really different from yourself. This is a significant advantage to possess going into a post-college workplace.

JACKIE LE, ENGLISH LITERATURE

Jackie Le, a senior in English, is the campus editor of the Exponent. Jackie has been at the newspaper for a little more than a year, bridging reporters and upper staff members. Some of her duties include keeping track of reporters’ progress on stories and relaying that to the editor-in-chief. Jackie also provides edits and does reporting. Although she has less time to report stories, she averaged about two stories a week last year.

The Exponent has provided her with opportunities to talk to brilliant people, including the Apollo 11 flight director, Gene Kranz. Jackie met him when he visited Purdue and asked him questions during a media Q&A. “I wouldn’t really have the opportunity to do so otherwise,” she says. You can find Jackie’s article on the event here: https://www.purdueexponent.org/campus/article_aa9d353a-f440-11e9-981a-ef9935c0efe2.html

Basically, the Exponent provides credible journalism for a wide-reaching audience. “Everything we do is essentially what is done at any other print organization, and this is a good stepping-stone for students to get a taste of the ‘real world,’” says Jackie. “It’s a great place to build writing and social skills, and connect with the community all while having fun.” If you’re looking for something to make your resume stand out, the Exponent provides the kind of professional experience that English majors at many other colleges just can’t get.

JULIA TAYLOR, PROFESSIONAL WRITING

Sophomore Julia Taylor, a double major in Professional Writing and Spanish, has been a copy editor at the Exponent for over a year. In her time at Purdue, she’s found that the English Department provides many beneficial career opportunities, including the chance to network at outlets such as the Exponent.

Julia’s duties include coming in once a week for print night to read over reporters’ articles, ensuring that they are without grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistakes. Julia also fact-checks the articles to confirm that the stories and the headlines are cohesive. Additionally, copy editors are required to come in once a week during the day to read over stories that will be published on the website and write staff reports on notable events and research. While Julia isn’t a reporter stories, some copyeditors are. Students are given the opportunity to do both, if they are interested.

“The Exponent has allowed me to gain experience in copyediting and understand the inner workings of a newspaper,” says Julia. “I’ve been able to meet like-minded people with interests similar to mine on a campus where students interested in English and Liberal Arts are sometimes hard to come by.”

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Libby Joson is a sophomore majoring in Profession Writing at Purdue.