Perhaps the very idea of another postapocalyptic tale exhausts you, but do stay, linger for a bit. Emily St. John Mandel’s tender and lovely new novel, Station Eleven, indeed begins when the world as we know it ends. Mandel anchors her book with the collapse of aging Hollywood actor Arthur Leander, who suffers a heart attack during a production of King Lear. As colleagues gather to raise a glass in the man’s honor, the author delivers a great slap of dread: ”Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
Within weeks, the Georgia flu, an insidiously efficient virus born in Eastern Europe and blown across the globe like a poisonous kiss, has wiped out 99 percent of the population. Mandel devotes an excruciatingly forlorn seven paragraphs to humanity’s ”incomplete list” of loss: no more cities, no more flight, no more police, no more electric guitars, no more social media. It’s what remains of a broken world that fuels a novel that miraculously reads like equal parts page-turner and poem.
One of her great feats is that the story feels spun rather than plotted, with seamless shifts in time and characters. Here, a young Arthur’s fateful meeting with his first wife. Then, a Michigan airport where stranded passengers cluster in huddles of horror beneath screens showing CNN. Now, a resolute band of actors whose caravan roams between dystopian settlements performing Shakespeare and Beethoven. ”Because survival is insufficient,” reads a line taken from Star Trek spray-painted on the Traveling Symphony’s lead wagon. The genius of Mandel’s fourth novel—the first with the marketing muscle of a major publisher—is that she lives up to those words. This is not a story of crisis and survival. It’s one of art and family and memory and community and the awful courage it takes to look upon the world with fresh and hopeful eyes. A