If you ever read a survival guide, you will likely come across the “Rule of Threes.” It says that on average, a human being can survive three minutes without oxygenated blood to the brain, three hours without shelter in harsh conditions, three days without water, and three weeks without food. To my knowledge, it has not yet been amended to explain how long one can live without a smartphone, but at least the list helps settle priorities. When your situation grows dire, you will know where to start if you hope to survive.
But are these all we need to truly survive? If all we have is water, food, and shelter, are we really surviving?
That’s the question at the heart of Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Station Eleven, one with which she confronts her readers by stealing the pleasantries of life we so often take for granted. Post-apocalypse has become a notoriously difficult genre to navigate due to the high volume of works being produced, but Mandel does so with a grace and depth that makes Station Eleven a unique contribution.
Goodbye, Good Ol’ Days
The novel opens in the middle of a stage production of Shakespeare’s King Lear in Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, the famed Arthur Leander starring in the lead role. As Act 4 begins, the crowd looks on horrified. Arthur fumbles his lines, grabs his chest, and falls to the ground suffering an apparent heart attack. Despite efforts to resuscitate him, Arthur becomes an early victim of what would soon spread worldwide.
Audience members flee the scene and chaos ensues. Overnight, civilization begins to crumble, not by means of sophisticated technology, warfare, or weaponry (or zombies!), but as a result of an aggressive, airborne strain of flu originating in the country of Georgia and transmitted as silently as an exhale. In a matter of days, the sickness extinguishes 99% of the world’s population. Apartment hallways grow silent. Phones stop ringing. News channels blink to static emergency broadcasts. And life as we know it changes forever.
No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities . . . No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages . . . No more countries, all borders unmanned. No more fire departments, no more police . . . No more Internet. No more social media . . . No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.
In other words, no more “good ol’ days.” And Mandel illustrates this through an intimate form of storytelling. Rather than survey the tragedy worldwide, she focuses on a small pocket of survivors in North America, opting only to tell their stories. While the novel orbits around Arthur as its central character, Mandel weaves an intricate storyline that gravitates between a handful of connected individuals, inviting us into their lives.
There’s Kirsten, the eight-year-old who watched Arthur die on stage as she performed her role in King Lear. Fifteen years later, having survived the pandemic, she joins the Traveling Symphony, an acting troupe that tours a small circuit around the Great Lakes performing Shakespearean dramas for the weary communities of survivors in the area. There’s Jeevan, the former paparazzo and entertainment writer who closely followed Arthur’s career. Or Clark, Arthur’s lawyer and closest, perhaps only, friend. These along with others provide the mental backdrop as the story unfolds jumping back and forth in time, offering glimpses before and after, slowly piecing together the tale as a whole.
A Cultivated Hope
What makes Station Eleven unique is its focus. It contains few fight scenes, little explicit blood and gore, and plenty of heartbreak, yet it leaves the reader with a profound sense of hope. Rather than closing as another tired addition to modern post-apocalyptic literature, it offers an exploration of what makes life worth living.
Throughout the story, Kirsten mentions several times that her favorite quote comes from an old episode of Star Trek, a pre-flu TV show she barely remembers—“Survival is insufficient.” Prior to the pandemic, people plod along in relatable form, burdened by regret, committed to what they perceive as “living” all the while masking their disappointment under an insulation of wealth, makeup, and surgically enhanced smiles, little more than “high-functioning sleepwalkers.” After the collapse, existence takes on a far more sobering tone.
Survivors realize they need more than the bare essentials and embark upon a new journey to both create and cultivate beauty. Losing everything forces them to reexamine those “ordinary” elements of life they previously overlooked. All of a sudden, newspaper startups, comic books, children’s toys, museum collections, and theater costumes take on a new sense of meaning.
Mandel avoids the tropes of monsters and zombies—so often found in post-apocalyptic literature—to create a deeply human story. It shows that we need more than the basics to live out our days. Within us all exists a deeper appetite requiring more than merely food and water for sustenance. Without relationships, art, love, history, and beauty, survival is hopelessly insufficient. Through her lyrical, intimate prose, Mandel shepherds readers into a narrative that slows the pace long enough to expose them to the more tender moments of life.
In my favorite scene of the book, Jeevan sits along the banks of a river, waiting for a freshly baked loaf of bread to cool. He watches his wife from a distance as she prepares their children for bed. The lamplight inside their tent frames her silhouette against the fabric wall, allowing him to enjoy a most precious silent film, one worth more than the price of admission for any motion picture. Despite the ravenous effects of the flu and all that it destroys, it also births moments of stillness, of gratitude, of worship.
Men and women alike are molded in the image of a creative, communal God. He did not intend for us to live on merely the bare essentials, which is why we craft, build, and create. Station Eleven recalls this truth by robbing readers of those modern safe havens to which we have grown accustomed. In doing so, it creates space enough to reflect upon what truly ties us all together. When life lacks beauty, community, and faith survival is insufficient, but hope remains even in the bleakest spaces.
Cover photo by Paul Itkin.