I almost didn’t like Station Eleven. Although the premise of a post apocalyptic world, a group of travelling Shakespearean actors and a mysterious sci-fi comic had immediately caught my attention, I nearly bowed out in the first few chapters. Although not a perfect book, I’m glad I kept with it, because it’s an interesting and rewarding read for those willing to get through the beginning.
Rather than a linear narrative, Station Eleven is an orbiting spiral of meetings, coincidences and connections, a search for answers amidst the multitude of questions left after civilization collapses due to a highly contagious strain of the flu. It focuses on the life of famed actor Arthur Leander, the people his life intersected with and his first wife’s graphic novel series, Station Eleven. The majority of the characters are in, or meet, a travelling group of Shakespearean actors and classical musicians called the Traveling Symphony.
The beginning of the story struck me as a bit pretentious, and I worried the whole narrative would focus on how the company was doing important work, clinging to culture in a society fragmented by disease. Important, perhaps, but insufferable to read about, like something written by a self-important English major. Fortunately, the story doesn’t linger too long in this beginning period and rather focuses more on a few individuals, some of whom are in the Symphony and some of whom were associated with Arthur.
I’m not sure I sympathized on a deep level with many of the characters besides Arthur and Clark, but the others still served the plot well and were likeable. The book’s younger characters were a bit frustrating as they seemed to have a collective sense of amnesia – despite having been alive before the collapse, they remember almost nothing. The description of the pandemic and the decay of society is most interesting in the chapters where it occurs in the present tense, but the past tense ruminations of “oh, I wonder what it would have been like to have electricity” get old pretty quickly. The book also has some cringe-worthy descriptions of technology, confirming my belief that every would-be writer needs a tech-savvy partner or friend to keep them from sounding silly.
I think the passages of Clark’s life, post-collapse were some of the finest in the book. His troubles carry more weight because he remembers his old life and has borne more losses. The prose itself throughout the story is compact and easy to read with moments of lyricism. It’s not overwrought, and has times where it’s really very beautiful, especially in its descriptions of the pages of Station Eleven, or small things like a glass paperweight. Its an accomplishment to create a graphic novel for your readers while using only words, but I could clearly picture it and would enjoy reading the actual thing. Station Eleven also has some vivid but disturbing vignettes that I won’t share for reasons of spoilers but hit you like a shot in the moment when you understand them.
Despite a few bumps and being set in a remarkable non-violent post-society world, Station Eleven is a quality book definitely worth adding to your reading list. I still walked away still wondering what precisely the point of the book was, but I enjoyed finding out the answers to its questions, even if I wasn’t always sure why I was asking them.