Thursday, May 13, 2021

An Altered Place

Station Eleven
Station Eleven 

“She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.”  ― Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

This is a book that best fits into the genre of "speculative fiction" as defined by Margaret Atwood in her book on that subject; however while within that genre it is a complex blend of dystopian science fiction and fantasy. 

The narrative describes a society almost eradicated by a deadly flu virus while it is focused on a group of actors and musicians who form a troupe called the "Traveling Symphony". Geographically centered on Canada and the Great Lakes area of the Midwestern United States this intricately plotted, post-apocalyptic nightmare ranges back and forth across the 60 years straddling "Year Zero," its five protagonists linked first by chance and ultimately by love: The actor, Arthur Leander, who gathers and discards friends and lovers with a casual cruelty he often mistakes for good intentions; Clark Thompson, Arthur's best friend; Miranda Carroll, his second wife; Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo, turned entertainment journalist, turned EMT; and Kirsten Raymonde (my favorite and the most fully realized character), a child actress at the start of the novel and its conscience by the end.

Although some chapters take place in Manhattan, Toronto, or British Columbia, the bulk of the action unfolds as Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony make a circuit between Traverse City, Michigan and the Ohio border, playing classical music, staging Shakespeare, scrounging for food and shelter (although the scrounging varied in intensity and sometimes contributed to the disjunct I refer to below), and, in the novel's final third, confronting  horrors I don't presume to divulge because I want you to experience this fantasy of life after death novel yourself.

This reader's experience was uneven because it was conflicted by the author's excellent prose style - offset by gaping holes in the narrative that weakened the plot while some of the primary characters were weakly portrayed. The overall way to describe the difficulty I encountered is that the core story could have been set anywhere and anytime, that what I found was a disjunct that diminished the connection between the overarching setting of the flu pandemic (the pandemic itself being one of the weak aspects of the story) and the devastation facing the main characters centered on the travails of the the Traveling Symphony. The result was a book that I wanted to like but did not enjoy reading as much as I believe I would have absent the inherent weaknesses.


CyberKitten said...

I definitely see what you mean about the pandemic itself. Here, and over in a flash. But I think it was very much 'simply' a plot device for what followed. The thing I loved most about this book - apart from the characters in it - was the way people and objects (like the glass paperweight) kept circling around (or spiraling?) and re-entering the narrative later on or in flashbacks. Agree on the excellent prose style and could honestly have admired it as much just for that as anything else.

James said...

Thanks for your observations. I appreciate your comment about the connections and circling of objects and people, but that and the lucid prose style weren't enough for me. I guess I have been spoiled by dystopias like Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.