Book review: Reading Station Eleven during a pandemic

On the surface, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a quirky post-apocalyptic novel that takes place in Year 20 after “Georgia Flu” kills 99 percent of the people on earth. After a second reading—this one during a pandemic much less severe than the one in the book—I see more. It’s a story about gratitude. And grace. And tenacity.

I read Station Eleven the first time soon after it published in 2014. I gave it a thumbs up. I thought it was humorous, but scattered.

A troop of actors and musicians, called The Symphony, travels the shore of Lake Michigan performing Shakespeare to people living in scattered communities. Fifty in a strip mall, 200 in what used to be a town. Over 300 in a regional airport that also contains a Museum of Civilization. An unpublished graphic novel from before the flu somehow ties together Kirsten, The Symphony’s best actor, Clark, the curator of the Museum of Civilization, and The Prophet, the book’s bitter and deluded villain.

And Arthur Leander, the 50-something world famous actor who dies of a heart attack in the first scene of the book, on the day the flu wipes out Toronto: what’s that all about? The narrative keeps flashing back to him, getting deeper and deeper into his self-absorbed consciousness until the moment he passes from life. The first time I read the book, I dismissed him and the obliquely-related pieces of print and dramatic culture that blow through the book in his wake.

Now, however, on my second read through Station Eleven, during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, I get it.

Mandel writes into a devastated world with amazing prescience. She nails the virus spread, even though the Georgia Flu is about 20 times faster and more lethal than our real-world virus. She imagines the fallout a week, a month, and several years after the virus. And she blesses characters with toughness, humility, and compassion I really hope humans would carry with them into a Year One, Year Two, Year 20. I get the sense that we see the good ones.

Station Eleven ends with a passage of gratitude, from the character I least expected, for the best things in life, which turn out to be the things you can’t buy, or even find on the road out of a devastated city: love, community, music, stories. Art. I read this book a second time with a sense of gratitude for these things in my life and also with a sense of scale. The world is suffering now in real life, but it could be a lot worse.