Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This isn’t a book review (sorry. Goodreads thattaway -> ). It’s more a diary entry about why this tv show/book matters so much to me.

I spend a lot of time browsing streaming platforms for Something To Watch. Not just anything, but something that resonates in some way; I don’t know quite what I’m looking for, and I generally don’t find it. It reminds me of the lyric in the Verve song Bittersweet Symphony: ‘I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah’ … When  interviewed Robert Dessaix about why people read fiction, he observed that “what they really want to do, I believe, is re-read their own lives”. He recalls his advice to new writers: “No-one’s interested in whether you loved your mother or not, they couldn’t care less, but they’re very interested in whether they loved their mother or not… they want to have light thrown on their own lives”(p.249). In the same chapter, mentions E. M. Forster’s counsel: “Only connect”.

While I have shelves groaning under the weight of books, I’ve not really read for pleasure for years. I’ve ploughed through endless textbooks, journal articles, and student essays, along with more pages of social media than I’d ever care to know or admit, but somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction, and lost my ability to lose myself in the pages of a novel. I wondered if it might be that in reading as a teen, identifying with protagonists had a spark of possibility – with them I embarked on adventures I might one day have, in worlds I might yet explore. In my 30s, reading romance novels brought me back to our days of courtship and a reminder of the romance that was buried under the weight of our everyday life. In my 50s, after years of struggle with resetting a career alongside a series of chronic health concerns, fiction should have been a welcome escape, but I found that most texts I picked up offered little interest. The scifi classics I tried to revisit were frustratingly dated and sexist, romance seems the concern of 20somethings, and crime is so often just bleak. The literary classics I aspired to were just hard work. Movies and video series were becoming the same, with the usual stock of spy thrillers and historical costume dramas not quite hitting the right nerves.

Then I found Station Eleven.

You’d think, after two years of pandemic, that a post-apocalyptic series about survivors of a pandemic would be too close to the bone (I can’t watch Handmaid’s Tale for that reason), but it’s not. Rather, while the scenes of the pandemic itself were shockingly prescient, the ongoing tale of the survivors and the society they build is full of hope.

At this point, it’s important to note that the tv series is based on the novel by Emily St John Mandel. You can watch and read in any order I think – whichever you choose, you should absolutely do both. I watched then read, and feel this works well, as I enjoy the immediacy of emotion and suspense of the unknown Immediately after watching the series, I ordered the book. It did not disappoint. The book and the series are two Entirely Different Things. They are often described as parallel universes (and this is meaningful given What I Read Next) where there are some of the same people and locations and events… and some different. The stories are subtly different, the emphasis and arcs … and that’s a good thing. I didn’t need the show to be a mechanical reproduction of the book. Some suggest that it’s ‘better’ in some ways, and I think this is because it has the benefit of ensemble – just as a band is so often better than the solo artist – the depth of experience of the showrunners, the rich personality brought by the actors (rather than the reader’s own imagination) and so on that bring out the best of the author’s original vision and enhance it. But the book offers its own riches, with internal dialogue and authorial observations, and connections of symbolic threads running through the text that can be harder to grasp in the cinematic version. They are perfect companions and each is well worth the time.

Theatre: The Spine of the Story

Is it the spine, or the scaffold? The flying buttresses, perhaps? The story of Station Eleven focuses on a band of survivors who form a traveling theatrical troupe, and theatre, and particularly Shakespeare (they only perform Shakespeare) is a central theme of the novel. I’m not a theatre person, though I did play in amateur theatre orchestras, so I have that experience to inform my reading. Elements of character, role, script and performance all provide structure and substance. What I find particularly interesting is where the script of the play is used as a medium for the people in the story to communicate – things they should have said, or can’t say – are said and truths emerge through performance.

One of the characters in the story creates a graphic novel that assumes a sort of biblical significance. Its story is mysterious and its meaning layered and obscure, and it has become something of an obsession with fans. As I write, it has yet to become a real object, though you can collect some of the artist’s work. Rumor has it that a real edition is in the works.

At some point I should say something about the music in the series. Visual art is there too – sometimes in shots that reference paintings:Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

Survival is Insufficient

On the side of one of the troupe’s vehicles is written ‘survival is insufficient‘. No truer words have ever been spoken. I often think that Maslow got it wrong – oh sure, you have fundamental needs for survival – but people start to create even when life is marginal, with those ‘lower order’ needs barely met. As long as we’re not about to expire – and perhaps even then – we make art.  The meaning, the narrative that we explore through art is not an optional extra to our lives, but rather a central driving force.