Monday, 27 July 2015

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.



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