Plenty of reviews favor Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an apocalyptic novel whose narrative kills off 99% of humanity in a contemporary 21st century setting. I picked it up to read in tandem with Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. I can only note my response to the book [anxiety, chills, and wild thoughts] without formally reviewing it because I imagine that none of those reviews was written in the context of a nearly global viral epidemic, the fictional analog being Station Eleven’s device bringing about the end of the world as we know it.
The story begins intriguingly with the death by heart attack of Arthur, an actor, in the final scenes of Shakespeare’s King Lear. A young paramedic, Jeevan, rushes to the stage to apply CPR to no avail. A little girl actor sobs in the wings as she watches her hero die. These three people continue in the present or in flashbacks as the books’ main characters. They become more familiar as the narrative unwinds and the reader learns in bits and pieces about their backgrounds and relationships. In Good Morning, Midnight and Station Eleven, relationships or the lack thereof are the driving force of the novel, whether painful, dangerous, or supportive. Loneliness and isolation pervade Good Morning, Midnight while attachments, unsatisfying or reassuring, characterize the characters’ state of mind in Station Eleven.
With COVID-19 spreading across the globe, I could not help thinking about the breakdown of systems and supply lines so aptly drawn in Station Eleven. Reduced to a level of Iron Age technology, survivors of the virus band together to scavenge and make the best of an impossible situation. Kirsten, the little girl, belongs to the Traveling Symphony, a group wandering a circuit and presenting music and performances of Shakespeare’s works. The Symphony encounters a cult community lead by the Prophet, a character who will present [or represent] one of the many dangers of a post-apocalyptic world.
Jeevan wanders along the East Coast until he settles in what was once Virginia into a peaceful and mutually supportive community. Although Kirsten and Jeevan experience threats to their safety, they survive because of their chosen ‘families’ and their skills. Arthur, a movie star in decline, dies before any of this, but through his flashbacks and memories and those of Clark, an old friend, we learn how intimately many of the characters are connected. The same dynamic is at work in Good Morning, Midnight. The problem with Station Eleven is its proposition that most people are good and want to help each other in order to survive chaos and loss. That’s a hard proposition to accept given the violence, greed, and indifference that has spread across the western world, but in these times Mandel’s message is a bit comforting. To paraphrase Shakespeare, as twere so simple.