“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when it didn’t feel like the world was coming to an end.”
This is Emily St. John Mandel, the gifted writer of The Lola Quartet whose latest novel, Station Eleven, was published Sept. 9. I had asked to meet with her because of how deeply the book affected me, first with its depiction of the world coming to an end, and then with the beauty with which the embers of that world struggle to endure. I was hoping she could explain the source of her optimism.
I had already been feeling vaguely apocalyptic when I happened upon the book, the byproduct of news headlines and general New York City living, a sense given dimension by what I began to think of as Mandel’s minutia of the end of the world. Station Eleven begins with a devastating global virus that spares only a fraction of those who encounter it, and I cannot tell you how unsettled I was by her step-by-step depiction of this event. Characters are “crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness… was going to be the divide between a before and an after.” Such divides in the real world seem apt to appear any day now, and while Mandel is probably right that such apocalyptic pessimism is nothing new, the echo chambers of 24-hour media and social networks have a way of amplifying these fears.
Twitter, obviously, goes fucking nuts with the in-book virus, and it isn’t long before the site crashes, followed by the rest of the Internet and global communication. Batteries die and cannot be recharged. Food vanishes from shelves. A girl runs out of antidepressants and breaks down in the face of the pain she knows is coming. There’s an immediacy here that’s elided by most end-of-days works, which open post-apocalypse and skip the messiness of the collapse.
So the book did not improve my mood, and as I revisit those passages for the purpose of this essay I find it’s easier for my pessimism to run wild amid such center-cannot-hold headlines as Ferguson, ISIS, Putin, melting ice caps and, what do you know, a goddamn Ebola outbreak. But the point of the book is not that its harrowing central event occurs, but how humanity reacts to it. “I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world,” Mandel told me.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the book takes place both pre- and post-virus, after society has stabilized and young people have only vague recollections of what TV screens looked like when they weren’t broken. (In one poignant moment, a man connects a generator to a computer just so he can see the familiar “network connectivity problems” page again.) This is part of Mandel’s love letter, honoring the everyday magic of smartphones and credit cards, but it goes deeper than that, becoming less about civilization’s achievements than its spirit. (The book has superficial commonalities with The Lola Quartet, between its non-chronological timeline and sympathy for its multiple narrators, but Station Eleven is where Mandel’s gifts fully flower. She writes with the confidence of someone who does the crossword in ink.)
After the virus, a theater troupe travels the country staging Shakespeare; we’re told such productions appeared early on after the collapse, and that audiences find solace in his poetry. I found this supremely moving, as I did when last year’s Mr. Burns also considered art’s place after a massive catastrophe. In that case it was pop art (The Simpsons), but no matter, there’s something beautiful in the idea that its art of any kind is needed for people to feel human.
Apocalypse stories are cyclical in popularity and we’re seeing an influx now, suggesting I’m not the only one feeling society is exhausted. This summer already saw the release of Edan Lepucki’s California and The Leftovers on HBO, which play on the same fears. But while they bemoan the things lost in their various cataclysms, they don’t honor the fact they once existed. They looked at the things that were ruined, not the things that survived. None of them are love letters.
Several times throughout Station Eleven I thought of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which also reads like a love letter to the modern world and a tribute to the lasting power of art.
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail,” Faulkner said. It is the writer’s “privilege said to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Optimism is obviously not enough to offset the very real problems in the world. But Station Eleven feels like the kind of art people will return to in trying times, to feel propped up in its perspective, some kind of small light in the darkness.