Quarantine Book Club: How Station Eleven helped me out of my reading slump
Welcome to EW's Quarantine Book Club: A series in which EW staffers discuss how their reading habits are changing and growing in the Coronavirus era.
With more time at home in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, we've got a lot more time for reading, right? It's hardly so simple. In this new EW series, staffers discuss how they're coping with experiences of anxiety and isolation through books. In this entry, Seija Rankin describes how a story about a society-ending flu pandemic (of all things) inspired her to panic-read.
Guys, I read a lot. Partly because I like to, partly because my job here at EW requires it of me. And, typically, it's a very comfortable arrangement: The books I love are a joy to comb through; the truly unreadable stuff, well, we can talk about that later. But life in quarantine, with the horrors of COVID-19 circling me at every turn (the empty streets outside my window, the sight of a solitary elderly neighbor reaching for the last package of toilet paper, the dispatches from the front lines that live in my phone and find a way to force themselves in front of my eyeballs all hours of the day, even when I've promised myself I will put it away and go to sleep), has not proven to be as conducive to curling up with a good read as all those sunny Instagram posts would have us believe.
Two weeks ago, on a flight from New York to L.A. — my last for the foreseeable future, of course — I was enjoying the breezy characters of J. Courtney Sullivan's Friends & Strangers, an upcoming summer title about a (fictional) journalist and new mother who decamps from Brooklyn to something a little more upstate than your usual upstate (read: several counties north of Westchester) and has trouble fitting in with her new neighbors. At the risk of marking myself, this is my literary bread-and-butter: New Yorkers, aspiration, scandal, snark. But once we were wheels-down at LAX, and discovered that in fact the (slightly surreal) lockdown procedures and (very real) constant anxiety had in fact followed me across the country, I lost my mojo. Poof!
Over the following week-plus, I tried in vain to get back on track. I returned to Friends & Strangers, fruitlessly, over and over. Devoid of my usual stack of pending releases to plow through (many copies are back at the office; most spring titles are under threat of date changes), I cracked open Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, a backlist title I've had my eye on since I found it on the shelves of Bart's Books in Ojai (bless you, Bart's Books), and read the same page at least four times over before giving up. I turned to Amy Chozick's Chasing Hillary in the hopes of harnessing (clinging to?) the swell of emotions I experienced while binging Hulu's Hillary docuseries, but her campaign trail tales were no match for my wandering brain, or the Instagram stories that I couldn't stop refreshing after every paragraph.
The solution, it turns out, was to lean into the pandemic panic. Emily St. John Mandel's best-selling Station Eleven had been taunting me for a while now — it hit shelves in 2014 (I never read it at the time), but her newest novel, The Glass Hotel, is my favorite book of the year so far. Eleven's premise, in short: a new strain of the flu wipes out 99 percent of the world's population. It's clear why some readers would proceed with caution during These Times and I can confirm that living inside this book lends an eerie quality to the real world, but I read all 352 pages in a day and a half and that was nothing short of a miracle.
Station Eleven follows several character and timelines, starting with a patient zero of sorts — Arthur Leander, a famous actor, who collapses onstage during a Toronto production of King Lear, dying of what onlookers believe is a heart attack but is revealed (to readers at least) to be the Georgia Flu, newly arrived on this continent. By the end of that night, the city's hospitals are overrun with victims — the incubation period, unlike with COVID-19, is mere hours — and within a matter of days the entire world is brought to its knees. Airports close, businesses close, the roads are so gridlocked that people take off on foot (a fruitless route to nowhere), news networks slowly go dark, electricity grids falter, the internet ceases to exist. Are you hooked yet?
Twenty years into the future, civilization has dwindled to consist of disparate camps of survivors spread across the country — survivors not only of the Georgia Flu, but of the lawless anarchy that broke out in its aftermath. A group of former actors and musicians have formed a traveling theater troupe, taking a caravan from camp to camp, performing Shakespeare for the ones who are left. As the plot weaves back and forth between the final days of the Old World and the bleak, occasionally hopeful days of the New World, the characters' connections reveal themselves to a stunning degree — this novel, while highly suspenseful, doesn't use the apocalypse for shock value.
It feels crazy to even type this (and maybe it's just the product of having been quarantined for nearly two weeks) but it had me legitimately pondering the meaning of life. If COVID-19 nearly wiped us out completely, what would you want the remaining citizens to remember (and, more importantly, preserve) about society? The Japanese have a concept known as Ikigai, loosely translated as reason for being — the idea is to find the intersection of what you love, what the world needs, what you're good at and, hopefully, what you can be paid for. I've been thinking a lot about that. I've also been thinking about how much trust I've put in Apple to keep my earthly memories intact.
If you're prone to existential wonderings, Station Eleven will give you more than enough fodder for the five-dozen or so meals you'll be taking with your quarantine companions before this thing is over. If you've been feeling like it couldn't possibly get worse than this, the novel will remind you that, actually, it could.
And, on a less grandiose level, it's simply a great book.