Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Because survival is insufficient.

It is not easy to say that. I don’t know the context in which the line appeared in Star Trek: Voyager, episode 122, twenty-three years ago, but we can’t use that expression now without sounding borderline insensitive, as the COVID-19 pandemic goes on, controlling the planet, coercing us to be grateful for every new day that gets added to our lives. However, when Emily St. John Mandel makes it the central theme of Station Eleven, she absolves us of our survivor’s guilt. When it all ends, when we begin again, or when it all ends, when we wait to begin again, we still find comfort in art. When our civilisation collapses, when our existence gets stripped down to hunting and gathering, we don’t simply survive, while that would have been enough, but we seek companionship and community, we look for beauty in everything, and we practise art. The expression makes me believe that I haven’t been greedy, in the last two years, for longing to do something more than surviving, something more than waking up, working, and existing.

After the collapse, The Travelling Symphony in Station Eleven walks across the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare, rendering Beethoven, living their days by entertaining those whose lives are momentarily uplifted by their music and art only for them to return to darkness and isolation after the performances. Before the collapse, a bunch of ‘high-functioning sleepwalkers’ gallop around their hyperconnected, fast-paced, seemingly safe and invincible world, dissatisfied and unhappy in their own ways. By flitting between the Before and After worlds, Emily St. John Mandel juxtaposes two realities in Station Eleven (and another in Miranda’s comic books). Station Eleven could have slipped into the argument that demonises modern technology and romanticises a world where there is no electricity, instant communication, and convenient and fast travel. Or, it could have instilled more fear by amplifying violence and atrocities of cult which take place after the collapse. However, Station Eleven does something compassionate by holding that juxtaposition, by building a Museum of Civilisation, and by offering a bright horizon of hope. It encourages us to pay more attention to what we have and how we use them. It shows that survival is everything and that along with the act of survival art persists.

Miranda’s comic books also answer the question that has many answers — why do we read? Her comics are her shadow life, but as the story unfolds, the boundary between the life on Station Eleven in her comic and the lives followed in Station Eleven, the book, blurs. The flickering boundary makes me wonder if that’s why we read, consume art — to pour our existence into a book, an artwork, a piece of music and to discover our identity in them, or for our identity to bleed and merge with them. Perhaps, inefficiency of languages also contributes to our quest, our hunt for metaphors in art, for us to make sense of our lives and our stories, for us to find meaning, and for us to do something, anything more than surviving. Clark Thompson, an organisational psychologist, a curator, the founder of Museum of Civilisation, is a memorable character for me, besides Miranda, in Station Eleven. That’s mainly because we share our suffering — enduring a life that’s eroded by the acidic waves of the corporates and fathoming the emptiness of ‘circle back’, ‘shoot an e-mail’, ‘leverage’, ‘touch base’. Despite how close his life was to sinking into the quicksand of meaninglessness glorified by the corporates, he sought beauty in a paperweight, an orange, and in improbable friendships. Knowing his story lit my heart. That’s all I can try do, too — survive and be waylaid by beauty.

Clark had always been fond of beautiful objects, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful. He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required. Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly-line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes, crates, shipping containers. Consider the card games played below decks in the evenings on the ship carrying the containers across the ocean, a hand stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, a haze of blue smoke in dim light, the cadences of a half dozen languages united by common profanities, the sailors’ dreams of land and women, these men for whom the ocean was a gray-line horizon to be traversed in ships the size of overturned skyscrapers. Consider the signature on the shipping manifest when the ship reached port, a signature unlike any other on earth, the coffee cup in the hand of the driver delivering boxes to the distribution center, the secret hopes of the UPS man carrying boxes of snow globes from there to the Severn City Airport. Clark shook the globe and held it up to the light. When he looked through it, the planes were warped and caught in whirling snow.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. Piques my interest. Art amidst survival, seems like that is what we have been doing all along. Talking of collapse, it sometimes makes you feel you are in the brink of it….

    Love the excerpt of the snow globe musing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a beautiful book, Leena. I am a little upset that I let it rest in my bookshelf for six months. But, as we discussed, it’s good for the books to find us when we are ready for them, I suppose.


      1. I have felt similarly. To read with a certain reading plan is something I myself haven’t managed to achieve. However books as somewhere to come back to, seems more alluring than books as another chore. I have found that it is motivating to watch other readers read, (not as a race), more like a yawn, ….you see someone yawn and find yourself yawning involuntarily!!


  2. A wonderful post – your thoughts on how essential arts are to humans seem spot on to me. It’s been fascinating to watch as across the world arts and nature are what has kept us semi-sane over the past few years. Essential workers: health care workers, teachers, librarians, retail workers, artists.

    PS – The Queen is looking especially elegant and queenly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julé, your Twitter account is a treasure chest. In offline life, I don’t get to see so many paintings. So, all that I see on your account transport me to many universes whose existence I am not aware of. Many thanks for curating and sharing. I cherish them.

      Liked by 1 person

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