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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.