Shoulda Coulda Woulda Book Review: Station Eleven

stationeleventwoTime on to-read list: One year

Reason for not reading: Ehhh… postapocalyptic? I’m good.

Reason for finally picking it up: GRRM. You heard me.

Verdict: GRRM, I shall never doubt you again!

This buzzy book has been sitting on my radar for about a year or so. A wave of praise made the rounds after it came out, followed by louder one after it won All the Prizes Ever. Even GRRM got in on the action, declaring this one of his favorite books- and without ONE dragon or drunken, violent knight with horrible family issues to be seen in the entire book, too! I was definitely paying attention by then.

And it turns out, I should have been. Reading this was a fascinating experience for me. Because there is actually a lot about it that shouldn’t work. I could very obviously see the holes where someone in a writing workshop would tell you to cross things out with a red pen. The book begins with heavy handed symbolism (an man old before his time, grown grotesque in his fame, playing King Lear), which continues throughout (the Shakespearean troupe that we follow throughout the book carries the ball forward). There are expected images and events that I wasn’t the least surprised to find, and some of them are way over the top (the quarantine plane). There’s dialogue that’s… rather strained throughout the novel, to say the least. We get the religious stuff you’d expect, and of course the symbolism at the beginning ends up being connected to a fateful reveal at the end. The sentiments of the novel are tired and expressed in a fashion I sometimes found precious and I wouldn’t say that its characters are all that unusual. We’ve got cult leaders and savages, wanderers, hunkered down communities, people in shell shock, people who have found their obscure skills are suddenly useful, people who find the strength they never knew they had.

Which makes sense, of course. The postapocalyptic genre is fairly limited as a proposition to begin with. This isn’t like the “fantasy” genre or sci-fi, which can basically be set anywhere you want, focused on anything you want, with a plot you create and characters who are put through what you want them to be put through. In the post-apocalypse, by definition, you’ve got to have everyone go through a cataclysmic event and you’ve got to judge their reaction to that. There’s a general range of reactions that people have to absolute devastation, and if you want to say believable and human there’s only so far you can stray from those patterns. And of course, you’re going to have to have some sort of society built on the remains. Now, sometimes, with sci-fi, like with a Battlestar Galatica, which is a postapocalyptic story, whatever you else you want to call it, you can distract us with spaceships and aliens. But the bones of it aren’t going anywhere.

I don’t generally give a shit about zombies (sorry guys, we’re not going to be watching Walking Dead re-runs together anytime soon), and I’ve got the pattern down, so what else you got, genre? And you know what? It had something. Which is why despite all of my objections and my general disinterest in the postapocalyptic genre as a rule, I think I was really drawn into this novel anyway. Station Eleven is poetry. No no, not in the sappy “it’s so beautiful” way of saying that (though it is that at times, too). I mean, you know how some of the beauty of poetry is how poets have to squirm within the strict limitations of a poetic form to produce something beautiful? Look at Shakespeare- what gorgeous couplets would we have lost if he didn’t have to make them rhyme sometimes? Look at haikus. (Hell, look at limericks. I bet you wouldn’t laugh as hard without particularly phrased dirty symbols to work with.)

Station Eleven bent and twisted itself around the form to find its beauty. What I mean by that is that, for the most part, it faded to black on anything that most postapocalyptic novels would spend the entire length of their novels focused on. Mendel knows that we understand the violence that will occur after the apocalypse, she knows we don’t need to see those first desperate years with everyone scraping and scratching and panicking, the sick, the young, the weak, the unable-to-handle-it dying off one by one, the supplies running out, and what we do for survival at first. We don’t need to examine, not at length, the primitive societies that spring up in civilization’s place and what we are likely to revert to.

This is a postapocalyptic novel with PTSD. The novel fairly specifically tries, if at all possible, to avoid looking at any of this typical drama. It’s set twenty years after, focused on a group of people who travel around what used to be the northern reaches of the Midwest, performing symphonic works and pieces by Shakespeare, because, as their banner proclaims, “survival is insufficient” (as the great people of Star Trek would say). Our heroine was a child when the cataclysm happened, and has only very vague memories of the immediate years afterwards, memories her dead brother told her he hoped she never remembered. We see her and her fellow actors wandering about and bringing a bit of light to the isolated, small point of light that are fairly safe and welcoming communities that are maybe, maybe just starting to feel confident enough to enjoy their performances for a few moments. But then the troupe visits a town that was once friendly, and unlike most of their stops, has gone backwards under the influence of a religious leader, one that it turns out will have a lengthy effect upon their company.

It’s not a low stakes story- our characters are still fighting for their survival every day. They still pick through abandoned buildings for anything they can scavenge, they still have guard duty and people still get picked off and left for dead on the side of the road (Mandel mentions characters’ run-ins with “ferals” but never says a word more about them). Characters are marked by how many kills they’ve had to make since the apocalypse as a warning to others. We definitely do occasionally see flashbacks to how it was- as characters feel comfortable flashing back, which, as you’d imagine is definitely not one of their favorite activities.

But it’s all done in this very subdued tone. Never once did I feel like the orchestra crescendoed to its highest pitch, never once did the adjectives pile on top of each other. I felt like this whole story was conducted in darkness, half light, or the full light of a plain, over-the-plains sun, with nothing fancy about it. The characters are more resigned, thinking about the inevitable, than they are in the midst of passion- we’re seeing this after passion has already died and everyone’s had the time to have a think for more than a few years. This is a discussion of the apocalypse set in twilight, at what would pass at magic hour for that society. This was a really big factor in selling this for me- it was completely not what I expected to find, and thus I found myself reconsidering feelings and ideas that are usually stated at top volume in this genre. Mendel applied a delicate touch to something that’s usually beaten into our heads with a sledgehammer.

There was also an interesting flashback strategy going on as well- throughout the book we’re given glimpses of the life of someone before the apocalypse- an actor who is on the back end of his career- how he rose from the pinnacle and started to fall. It is his death on stage, dying in the comfortable never-having-known knowledge of the apocalypse, the night it all began, that is the point from which we’re invited to consider the apocalypse. Generally, apocalypse stories don’t have much use for the rich and pampered (there often seems to be a sort of class-based satisfied undertone, actually, to the idea that rich people will either become “low class” like everyone else, or be the first ones to die). So it was surprising to find this as our entry point, being asked to consider, with sympathy, the story of a rather pampered man who might have come from humble beginnings, but who only got more self-involved and more self-indulgent as his life went on- even harder to do when interspersed with postapocalyptic tales of people fighting for their lives and the cruel, hard flashbacks they have had to deal with instead. But I think Mandel did a good job of making an argument for Arthur and his place in the story- I liked that it was a subtle, and generally not taken way of arguing for the value of all human life, not just the generally praised virtues, but everyone who had friends and a career and wives and children and a favorite way they liked their coffee. I would be curious to know if this was an element that read well for most people, or if it jarred them out of the novel. From the overwhelmingly positive response, I’ll guess most people agreed with me, but I am surprised about the fact that that’s the case

So Station Eleven got away with a lot. I’m fascinated by how much it got away with, just by sliding quietly around the corners of expectations, with a superb choice of tone and the way it focused on the road less taken. I would recommend this to writers looking for an example of a clearly highly written, highly structured book that manages to break a lot of rules in exactly the right way. I found myself drawn into its quiet atmosphere, my senses alert, like someone was whispering to me and I had to lean forward to hear them. I found that I was in a completely different mood by the time I finished. I didn’t even realize how much it had enveloped me until I was finally, unexpectedly, released.