Emily St. John Mandel has employed mystery elements in some of her earlier novels, but Station Eleven marks her boldest attempt yet to work within a genre. It’s a full-on post-apocalyptic novel, complete with a deadly pandemic, disparate groups of survivors, and a zealot who prowls the land meting out justice. Alas, it’s not the most comfortable fit. Mandel is no Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, or Justin Cronin (whose thriller The Passage is referred to by one of the book’s characters and included in the author’s acknowledgements).
The novel begins strongly. In the startling opening pages, aging movie star Arthur Leander collapses from a heart attack onstage at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre while playing King Lear. But his death is soon overshadowed by a flu that begins decimating society. The rest of the novel flashes forward and back to show how various people in Arthur’s life – his first wife, a graphic novelist; the man who rushes onstage to try to save him; a young girl who will grow up to be part of a wandering, ragtag music-and-theatre company called the Travelling Symphony – are connected.
The book is certainly ambitious, spanning decades and continents. Unfortunately, Mandel’s use of the omniscient narrator distances us from her sprawling cast of characters. It doesn’t help that everyone’s dialogue sounds alike and some members of the symphony are referred to not by name, but by the instruments they play. (“[The] first flute was less irritated by the seventh guitar than she was by the second violin.”)
Mandel seems to want to show art transcending even the bleakest situations, but the performance sequences are flat. You get the feeling that she’s using Shakespeare not for what’s in his plays but for the fact that he lived in a time that experienced its own share of plagues. Art also crops up in the series of graphic novels that lends the book its title, but the otherworldly plot depicted in the comics fails to resonate with anything else.
Mandel’s writing is best when it remains simple, depicting a road cluttered with empty cars, people holed up in an airport outpost, or a woman leaving a party to reflect on her disintegrating marriage. Here’s hoping her next book has more down-to-earth details like these.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified the author of The Passage as Justin Cartwright. Q&Q regrets the error.