Station Eleven is a book I have various feelings about. It’s one of those books that is festooned with awards and I can see why it has those accolades but simultaneously wonder if it’s deserving.
The most important thing is that Station Eleven, I feel, works well as portraying an apocalypse – the Georgia Flu is a plausible and devastating malaise and how it destroys civilization is quite palpable, but it is how the author chooses to highlight how the apocalypse came about that is, bizarrely, both effective and irritating in equal doses.
The first question I feel obliged to answer: does Station Eleven work as a novel? Not quite. I felt this book had so many threads and jumped between them quite schizophrenically. We begin the book two weeks before the Georgia Flu takes hold at a performance of King Lear where esteemed actor Arthur Leander dies mid-performance. To a British reader this is eerily close to a real-life occurrence that is culturally significant, and this scene is well dressed in the novel, an interesting frame for the coming end of civilization. But I don’t feel Station Eleven really has one narrative and protagonist, so seems to work more as a series of vignettes that are tenuously interlinked and it feels confused and almost contrived to attract praise, but narratively I felt it was a bit muddled.
Am I reading a book about a travelling troupe of performers in a post-apocalyptic scenario or am I learning about life before the Georgia Flu? Or am I learning about the reformation of some kind of society from the ashes in the time between? It’s hard to pin down, and the narrative jumps around so much it’s almost confusing; indeed, I became fairly disinterested in the backstory chapters regarding Arthur Leander (to whom one of the Travelling Symphony members, naturally, has a fixation on for reasons I feel are still fuzzy) and indeed started skimming them because, while I am sure they built up this character, I was simply uninterested in this presentation of the history as it seemed so focussed on this apparently-idolised character it felt contrived to give that character depth and it simply didn’t work.
Better were the chapters focusing on the Travelling Symphony’s exploits in escaping the clutches of a religious extremist whose warped ideology seemed to have enslaved a settlement, turning it from wholesome to bad, but again this plot seemed fairly tenuous and threadbare. Again I enjoyed the vignettes dealing with life in the post-apocalyptic world set up by the pandemic alluded to in the other chapters but it wasn’t strong enough. Indeed, I also enjoyed the chapters dealing with how the remnants of humanity formed a new type of society, unable to really harness the modernity that was possible before.
I also appreciated that this was an “elegant” portrayal of an apocalypse; the credo of the Travelling Symphony, that “survival is insufficient” is a noteworthy and auspicious goal to aspire to when so much post-apoc work seems focussed on preserving humanity on a functioning level that culture and sentimentality is stripped away from the emergent society. Indeed, one of the reflections I took away from Station Eleven for my own work is that, in events such as an apocalypse, the emergent society is well represented by what it chooses to preserve from before.
But does Station Eleven ultimately work as a novel once those thematic elements are stripped away? I’d find it difficult to say that it does – the book asks questions but the plot and characters become instantly forgettable. As I said, Station Eleven is less a story, but more a series of vignettes exploring the degradation of civilization. And despite some haunting unknown moments – the last plane to land at the Severn City Airport taxis to a remote part of the airport and goes into a self-imposed quarantine for one; the mysterious brightly-lit city visible from the control tower that we learn nothing about being another – executed with some classy, understated prose that lacks pretension, it just doesn’t quite work out as a narrative.
And that, for me, disappointed me a bit because the author does so much almost-right with the worldbuilding and the execution – as a post-apocalyptic tale it does a lot right in terms of setting and I gleaned a fair bit of inspiration for my own work from it – it’s a terrible shame that there’s very little actual plot in there to take place, and what’s there does seem a bit muddled. Where is the focus of the plot at – the post-apoc “now” or the pre-event “then”?
Ultimately my mixed feelings did impede my enjoyment of Stattion Eleven. Conceptually, and on paper, Station Eleven does lots to attract the awards it’s been nominated for but unfortunately is a plot-starved half-birth that just doesn’t quite scratch the itch it sets itself up to induce.