Station Eleven: Fragmented Storytelling in a Questionable World

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Madeleine’s Score: It was okay—wouldn’t read it again
(3/5 cool points)

It’s the end of the world as we know it, all thanks to a new strand of swine flu that takes people out in a number of hours. Now, fifteen years later, we explore the fallen world through the lives of numerous survivors.

There’s no denying that Emily St. John Mandel is a talented writer. In particular, I loved her idea of the traveling symphony—a group of people whose mission is to keep the arts alive by traveling from town to town and sharing music/plays with those left on Earth. Additionally, the author’s style is distinct, which so many writers strive for in their own work. Unfortunately, her style just wasn’t for me. That combined with her use of a couple of post-apocalyptic tropes that I’m tired of made for a somewhat frustrating reading experience.

The style of this book is, in a word, fragmented. It’s fragmented both in the story itself and the language with which it’s told. There are dozens of characters, and about a dozen of those are “major” characters. Many of the characters in the symphony aren’t ever named, instead referred to simply as the instruments they play and their position in the orchestra (e.g., the first flute and the second cello). We see bits and pieces of the characters’ stories, some from the past, some in the present, all delivered via an omniscient narrator. Due to the number of characters, the nonlinear storytelling that often felt random rather than intentional, and the use of an omniscient narrator, I wasn’t able to care about anybody in this post-apocalyptic world. And that’s a shame, because to me, a story without relatable characters is just talking about stuff that happened, which I don’t find appealing.

One of the defining aspects of the writing style is the use of lists. Lists and more lists (delivered via fragments) of things are found throughout the book, things like, “No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities…” These lists have the potential to be impactful, but they’re used over and over, and as a result, they lost much of their power. I ended up skimming through many of them. These lists fed into one of my big beefs with lots of post-apocalyptic writing, which is how it tends to beat a dead horse by telling the reader repeatedly that “the world is terrible.” This book did the same thing with the idea of “the way things used to be,” and this mournful sentiment was often delivered via the aforementioned lists.

The basic premise of a virulent flu that kills in a day, with an incubation period of just three hours, left me with major questions. As a post-apocalyptic writer myself, I’ve explored all manner of world-ending catastrophes in my free time, and sicknesses are truly terrifying. But the way this particular virus operates, while scary on the surface, would likely have resulted in a quick burnout and the ability to quarantine the sick relatively effectively. The science behind the epidemic in Station Eleven is sparse, its cause and “patient zero” left unidentified, so perhaps the author put real thought behind it, but if that’s the case, we readers aren’t privy to it.

Finally, the “crazy messiah/prophet/chosen one taking Bible verses out of context” trope is utilized, and it’s one I tired of long ago. I’m just over it.

This book is well-regarded by many and has garnered such accolades as New York Times Bestseller and 2014 National Book Award Finalist. It simply wasn’t for me.

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