Thursday, October 29, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read Station Eleven for the first time, I know I said that while I enjoyed it, I would probably never re-read it; it wasn't that kind of book. Surprise! I've re-read it. Although, in all honesty, this was for my book club, so it wasn't really by choice. Still, it was a surprisingly satisfying re-read. Mandel is deftly genre-bending here, squeezing the pulp out of the (what I think is now tired) dystopia genre, leaving behind a slowly building, non-linear, character rather than action/plot driven novel of pure reading pleasure. The end of the world is never a pretty sight (Thunderdome), and Mandel's Armageddon still has dog-eat-dog. But enough with the dystopian tyrants (and zombies and cannibals); Mandel chaos is still scary, but Shakespeare and symphonies bring order to that chaos, and thank the muses we have a dystopia we can turn to and maybe say "things are going to be okay." Because art, creativity. Perhaps. But there are signs here that art and literature can be dangerous in the wrong hands. A tremendously enjoyable accomplishment, the second time for me was definitely the magic charm.

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When I read Station Eleven  for the first time, I know I said that while I enjoyed it, I would probably never re-read it; it wasn't that kind of book.  Surprise!  I've re-read it.  Although, in all honesty, this was for my book club, so it wasn't really by choice.  Still, it was a surprisingly satisfying re-read.

When we read The Bone Clocks, the Read-Think-Talk exercise found here was quite helpful in organizing my thoughts about that particular book.  Here is my R-T-T for Station Eleven.

Spoilers ahead!  If you are reading this because you stumbled upon it wanting to know if you SHOULD read Station Eleven, then read no further (you SHOULD read it).


The Georgian Flu.  Obviously not a human character, but still an actor and change agent in this novel. 
Arthur, the famous Hollywood actor, like all actors, both likable and unpleasant. Arthur is clearly the axis upon which the novel turns, but I'm not sure what his significance is; if this book is indeed about the power of art to move us and change us and make us more human, his particular brand of art has corrupted and calloused him.
Kirsten, child actor who is part of the Traveling Symphony, strong, certainly not innocent, likable.
Jeevan, the paparazzi turned EMT in training to tries to save Arthur's life, likable, identifiable.  What is Jeevan's role in this novel?
Frank, Jeevan's paraplegic brother, almost a paper doll.  
Miranda, the first ex-wife of Arthur, the graphic artist responsible for Station Eleven, who also has a corporate life, very likable, certainly not innocent or naive, strong
Elizabeth Colton, the naive and innocent glamorous second ex-wife of Arthur, who (because I was listening to a podcast about the Manson murders) looks like Sharon Tate in my head.  She is the mother of Arthur's only child, a son 
Tyler, the prophet, unlikable (which is the point), mentally ill, 
Clark, Arthur's gay friend and roommate from before he became famous, very likable, sad.
Dieter (older, was a punk rocker), August (philosophical and spiritual), Sayid (was Kirsten's lover), members of the Traveling Symphony who seem important. All three are not paper dolls, Mandel subtly crafts them into life.

Are the characters convincing? Do they come alive for you? How would you describe them — as sympathetic, likeable, thoughtful, intelligent, innocent, naive, strong or weak? Something else?

Mandel's characters seem authentic; only a couple felt like paper dolls carefully placed and manipulated to move the plot along (something I generally find annoying in a book).  The main characters listed above (mostly?) acted and reacted in ways that seemed legitimate.  I particularly thought Jeevan was a vivid and memorable character, mostly because of the scenes with his brother; he certainly came alive. (his brother, though alive, also felt plotted, although not necessarily clumsily).   Arthur, perhaps, was the only character that seemed a bit murky, and perhaps that was on purpose; who really knew Arthur anyway?  

Do you identify with any characters? Are you able to look at events in the book through their eyes—even if you don’t like or approve of them? Do they remind you of people in your own life? Or yourself?

I don't usually identify with characters, so that's a hard question to answer.  Perhaps Miranda, because she possesses creative strengths but doesn't actually pursue her art, instead going corporate.  I was most attracted to August; he seemed wonderfully gentle and interesting.  

Mandel was most definitely able to create characters who we can crawl inside of and peer out through their eyes, feel what they are feeling.  I think this was one of the strongest points of the book.

Clark was definitely someone I've met, although I can't specifically name one person who he reminds me of.  

Are characters developed psychologically and emotionally? Do you have access to their inner thoughts and motivations? Or do you know them mostly through dialogue and action?

Very much so.  Even some of the minor characters, like August, Mandel gives enough subtle hints and clues using phrases, descriptions, words, language, dialogue to create vividly emotional and vibrant characters.  There isn't really all that  action in this book, particularly one that takes place on teh back end of the Armageddon - unlike some end of the world books, this has a dearth of battle scenes, but much emotional energy and inner dialogue.

Do any characters change or grow by the end of the story? Do they come to view the world and their relationship to it differently?

Arthur dies at the beginning and at the end.  He's some sort of crux (obviously) but I'm not sure sure what.  He does not change or grow.  

Kirsten ages from an innocent child actor with typical child actor problems (hints of a horrible mother and crappy childhood) to a hardened, world-wise and somewhat world-weary battle hardened woman warrior; the end of the world has made her strong but not brittle; she's tempered; she longs for the old world but accepts the new.  She also uses her art to find a place in the world, perhaps as a solace (uses her art like Miranda uses her art; as Arthur can't use his).

Jeevan also is a practitioner of an art - photography - that he uses for evil intent that he ultimately feels guilty about.  His life changes drastically, but I don't think he personally changes as much as Kirsten.  

Miranda changes throughout the novel; she's naive and scared at the beginning, and becomes confident and corporate by the end.  Although she dies, so we never get to see how the end of the world would hone her.

Elizabeth Colton.  Stays the same.  Always thinks "things happen for a reason" which is delusional at best when considering the end of the world; a practitioner of pop psychology of the Oprah one hour variety that doesn't serve her well when Armaggedon hits; and turns her already mentally ill son into a monster.  

Tyler. He's the other side of Kirsten; the world changed, and they adapted in different ways.  We don't really know what he was like as a child though; we get both exposition and hints about Kirsten's life, but Tyler we just don't know.  We know what Tyler becomes; I learned a new word:  he's a lusus naturae, a freak of nature.  

Clark.  I think Clark becomes something else because of the Armageddon, but he's kind of like Tyler in the respect that we don't really know all that much about his previous life, so we don't know how he changes.


Is the story plot-driven, moving briskly from event to event? Or is it character-driven, moving more slowly, delving into characters' inner-lives?

I think something really interesting about this book is Mandel's genre-bending; she took the traditional (and now sort of done to death) end of the world/dystopia genre (World War Z, The Hunger Games) and sliced out most of the action and sex (read: Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling).   This story isn't plot-driven at all; we don't move briskly from event to event.  Instead, we jump around in time and space, a story that told from all sorts of different time angles.  It's most definitely character-driven; each character is an attentively dropped blob of color (although hardly formless; these characters are crafted) into a plot and chronology that's a pan of water; eventually, slowly all the drops become one, but that takes time.  

What exactly is the plot here, and does it even matter?  Weren't we more interested in reading about how these particular people survive the end of the world; and how what happened to them before makes them who they are now?  

What is the story’s central conflict—character vs. character...vs. society...or vs. nature (external)? Or an emotional struggle within the character (internal)? How does the conflict create tension?

According to this source, there are four classic (and sexistly named) conflicts.
Man vs. man.  A struggle between two forces.  If we take Kirsten as the heroine of this novel, then she is in direct conflict with the Prophet.  But that's such a boringly weak conflict; the lack of action makes that a cherry on top of the cake at best; more like a little sprinkle.  A bit of sweetness, but nothing much.

Man vs. society.  Now this one is a bit more interesting to think about, because for all intents and purposes, society has collapsed.  Kaput, it's gone.  But a large portion of the novel takes place before the collapse of society, and some of it takes place during and right after the collapse.  This lack of society precludes a conflict.

Man vs. nature.  This conflict is very apparent throughout the novel.  Society has collapsed because of nature, in this case the Georgia Flu, and all the events and effects of that collapse; everyone is suddenly forced to the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, whereas before the collapse all of these characters were someplace in the middle or top.  If Man vs. man is the little bit of sweetness on top of the cake, then man vs. nature is the cake.

Man vs. self.  I guess, the four main characters (Kirsten, Arthur, Jeevan, and Miranda) all have internal struggles involving their need to create.

Is the plot chronological? Or does it veer back and forth between past and present?

This plot is the exact opposite of chronological, but non-linear done really well.

Is the ending a surprise or predictable? Does the end unfold naturally? Or is it forced, heavy handed, or manipulative? Is the ending satisfying, or would you prefer a different ending?

The ending wasn't predictable, but also not a surprise either, not a Sixth Sense  or "The Lottery" or "The Gift of the Magi" type of surprise.  At no point did Mandel walk and talk her paper dolls into the ending; really there is only one bit that felt forced, the paraplegic brother, and that was only slightly paper-dollish, and it was the ending.  I thought the end was satisfyingly gentle.  There wasn't some shoot out at the OK Corral.  There was a shoot out towards the end though, but it was almost anti-climatic; the true villain is still the Georgian Flu.  At least part of the gently rolling end was augmentation to the whole theme of illegitimi non carborundum; the bastards in this case being the Georgian Flu, and "us" being humanity.

Point of View

Who tells the story—a character (1st-person narrator)? Or an unidentified voice outside the story (3rd-person narrator)? Does one person narrate—or are there shifting points of view? What does the narrator know? Is the narrator privy to the inner-life of one or more of the characters...or none? What does the narrator let you know?

I believe Mandel wrote this in third-Person omniscient; the all-seeing and all-knowing narrator kens things (e.g. Clark at the airport coincidentally missing every infected person as he walks through the terminal) and sees into people's minds (Miranda's dying thoughts at the beach, for example).  

Imaginative Development

What about theme—the larger meanings behind the work? What ideas does the author explore? What is he or she trying to say?

I think the "duh" theme is the power of art.  Art can bring comfort, make order out of chaos, remind us about our humanity. But art can dehumanize too; several times Arthur strikes various characters as unreal, as always acting; his art that built him up has destroyed him.  Miranda uses her art as an escape of some sort too (I think) while Jeevan's art harmed people.  

This certainly ties in with the Star Trek quote:  Survival is insufficient. 

Humans create; they also destroy. I think the Georgia Flu is man-made; the doctor at the beginning hasn't ever seen anything like this before.  

Symbols intensify meaning. Can you identify any in the book—people, actions or objects that stand for something greater than themselves?

Station Eleven the graphic novel is some sort of symbol, but I don't know what it stands for.  Art?  Space? Escape from reality?  What does it mean?

I think Arthur represents something too.  I'm bad at symbols though.

What about irony—a different outcome, or reality, than expected. Irony mimics real life: the opposite happens from what we desire or intend...unintended consequences.

I don't think there is much irony in this book.  Plenty of coincidence though.  It's sort of ironic, I guess, that Kirsten uses Station Eleven as something to keep her strong and alive, while Tyler uses it for ill purposes (although he uses the Bible more).  Again, that idea that art can sustain or cause pain.

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