Skip to main content

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Survival is insufficient
I've been lax, slack, lacking in both areas of duty and equality, when it comes to reviewing to this, the fourth novel by Canadian author and person who is both younger and more successful than me, Mandel comma Emily St. John (presumably pronounced 'Sin Jin' just like le frère perdu of stalwart 1980s airborne action adventure hero Stringfellow Hawke*). Frankly, I blame jazz. 

You might consider it odd that I choose to blame an entire musical genre (have you learned nothing?), but specifically, I'm talking Miles Davis, Charlie Parker** and Charles Mingus, to whose music I have been listening almost non-stop for four days after a visit to Brecon Jazz festival. I consider them pretty much the embodiment of the genre and to those who loudly shout 'WHAT ABOUT BENNY GOODMAN AND BIX BEIDERBECKE?!' I say you make a good point, you racists.

I'm digressing. What I mean is that for the last week I have been working ten hours a day to make that trip to Brecon Jazz possible, and that herding 37 young 'cats' throughout (and to the festival itself) has left me receptive to the calls of alcohol and sleep, nominally in that order. It also left me missing the Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings CD that in my former place of work was rarely if ever off the six-CD changer and which provided the soundtrack to much bookselling. So of course, not having a spare tenner with which to part, I found much cheaper versions of this and Miles Davies, and Charles Mingus, and had a splurge. Of money. On jazz records. And subsequently, jazz has pretty much been pushing all sensible thought and notions out of my head. 

All of this has meant me doing a disservice to what is, genuinely, a thought-provoking and authentic post-apocalyptic tale. Eschewing popular themes–zombies and the like– Mandel instead focuses on what might be important to those left behind after a perfectly plausible extinction-level event in the form of a virus that kills 99% of the people on Earth. In that, she produces the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of orchestral players and Shakespearean actors who circle a Great Lake playing to the dishevelled populations of the ramshackle chain of towns along their route. Their motto, pleasingly lifted from the mouth of ex-Borg hive member Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager, is 'Survival is Insufficient'. Indeed, this is the motif of a novel in which art is considered in the Churchillian context–perhaps apocryphally, Churchill is reported to have pondered the purpose of war at all if art funding was cut in favour of further military spending. All of the things we thought we needed, desperately wanted, were conditioned to purchase and consume, are suddenly rendered obsolete. Music so thoughtlessly digitised is no longer accessible as there is nothing to power the digital music players, so people flock to hear 'real' musicians; people turn out to see A Midsummers' Night's Dream because they yearn for the storytelling and drama of Shakespeare once more. All that is gone is missed no doubt, and is encapsulated in the whimsical but profound nostalgia of the Museum of Civilisation, but it is no longer important.

And running through the whole novel, perhaps the least plausible but, honestly, most integral part, is the human story of actor Arthur Leander, whose death on stage presages the collapse of civilisation. His family, friends, fellow actors and even the man who tries to save him on stage, are the principals in what is a strangely gentle story of disaster and aftermath, culminating in a glimpse of redemption. I say gentle, but there is danger and death a-plenty, however in this vision of the future, the lawlessness is receding, groups are beginning to settle down and form communities which trade and enjoy gingerly coalescing relationships with one another. But one last great danger lies ahead, rooted in the messages of a limited-edition graphic novel, written by Arthur Leander's first ex-wife, Station Eleven.

In trying to pull together a synopsis, I realise quite what an achievement this novel represents, and the speed at which I raced through it belies it's genuine depth. I just wanted to read on, read more, find out what happens. And as I say, hope is there, despite the destruction, seen as a glimmer of light over the hill on a dark night. 


*Portrayed by squinty actor Jan-Michael Vincent, whose refusal to wear his prescription glasses on set forced him to peer myopically at pretty much everything including Ernest Borgnine***.
**Not the PI out of the rather good John Connolly novels, the other Charlie Parker.
***Now, just because I love Ernest Borgnine AND Airwolf, here's the theme tune.



Comments

How's about that then?

Apochryphal Tales by Karel Čapek

Many (many) years ago, when I first read War With The Newts, after scouring the Waterstones' internal database (whimsically named Ibid, and from which one could print the details of books onto the till roll in light- and so it seems, time-sensitive purple ink which, on the inches thick ream of leaves I printed for future perusal, faded within a few months rendering my catalogued wish list so much locker mulch) for authors with a suitably Czech-sounding name, having put away an entrée of my first slim Hrabal, a palate-cleansing Kundera and in need of a meaty Moravian main course, I think I might have completely and totally missed just how funny it was, bloated as I was by the doughy and Victorian-sounding translation and the rather unlikely ideation of the future political terroir of mankind and their unusual amphibian slaves and, latterly, sappers, the newts.

How's that for a sentence David Foster Wallace? INTERROBANG.

Well, there's no chance that Čapek's typically Czech…

Free Fall In Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Trav is back, still grieving the loss of some chickadee or other whose death almost knocked him off his game, but not too shook up to set himself up with a few more lucky lovelies whilst tripping his way through another overly complicated and rather sordidly underwhelming plot. This time, some bikers are making dirty movies with minors on the set of a future classic hot-air-balloon movie. Travis falls into the action because a rich old geyser carks it in unusual circumstances and it affects the trust fund of a former marina-mate. And hirsute intellectual Meyer wets his pants towards the end. 

You may sense a fatigued, sardonic note in my precis. It's not that I don't still love John D., it's just that after embarking on the long game that is reading the entire Travis McGee oeuvre, I'm approaching the end and it feels long overdue. It's been fun, it's been enlightening, but it's also been a schlep. With the realisation I might now have fewer years left to me …

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …