I ranked the top ten prospects by position (plus ten more starting pitchers) for Insiders today.
Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven joins a recent tradition of literary works set in a post-apocalyptic setting that sits beneath the story rather than dominating it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with The Road, an impossibly bleak setting that McCarthy uses to depict the lengths to which a parent will go to protect his or her child. David Mitchell worked it into the innermost story of Cloud Atlas. Margaret Atwood may have been the first to write a novel of high literary merit in this sort of setting with The Handmaid’s Tale, demonstrating the possibilities of telling a story that transcended the typical tropes of science fiction. St. John Mandel’s work, which won the Clarke Award and was a finalist for many other honors, goes as far as any of these works in creating a story that exists and succeeds independent of the setting, because she has been able to populate her universe with compelling, realistic characters before placing them in a possibly-unrealistic setting.
Station Eleven opens on the last night of normal life on Earth, at a production in Toronto of King Lear where the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies of a heart attack during the performance, a scene that introduces us to several major characters in the book. That same night, a devastating virus from the Caucasus known as the Georgia Flu has shut down a major hospital in the same city; the virus kills within 48 hours, and in a matter of days global civilization collapses. Over 99% of the human population is wiped out by the disease, leaving the handful of survivors to return to subsistence living.
One group of survivors forms a traveling company to perform Shakespeare’s plays and classical music concerts to the small gatherings – “towns” of 20 or 30 people, usually” – around what had previously been the lower peninsula of Michigan. The group’s motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, is “because survival is insufficent,” referring to one of the book’s constant themes of the survivors’ way of clinging to culture as a reminder of what came before. One member of the troupe, Kirsten, was on stage as a child actress during that performance of King Lear, and of the group of central characters she is the primary protagonist, with nearly all of the present-day action swirling around her. St. John Mandel also presents a series of flashbacks revolving around the life of Arthur, who came from a tiny town on an island in British Columbia and rose to become a famous film actor, rolling through three marriages and many friendships, with some of the characters appearing after the collapse along Kirsten’s path. One of Arthur’s friends grants us a window into another survivors’ colony located in an airport outside of Chicago, a speculation on how a group of strangers thrown together by fate might start to form a community in the face of a global catastrophe.
St. John Mandel’s prose is wonderful, but it’s the characterization that sells this book. The core characters are indirect victims of the pandemic – orphaned children, widowed spouses, but even people who came through with some family intact have lost essentially everything. She mentions unnamed characters who die from a lack of necessary medications. The few who survived suffer some guilt, but are more crushed by the weight of having to start everything over while trying to forget what they’d lost. Within this context, she shows remarkable insight into human thought and behavior, especially in response to trauma – the survival instinct, the nostalgia, the desire to be social, to form communities around shared interests or needs, along with glimpses of the darker side of humanity in the form of one person who takes advantage of the vulnerability of certain survivors.
Kirsten, who remembers virtually nothing from before the virus and absolutely nothing of the year she spent walking south into the former U.S. with her brother, receives the most three-dimensional depiction, a woman capable of ruthless behavior when her life is at stake, but still grappling with guilt and remorse when she has to resort to violence. The troupe has become her surrogate family, as it has for most if not all members, and she has complex relationships within the group that resurface when three members go missing after a visit to a town that has become the headquarters of a doomsday cult. We also get a full depiction of the charmed life of Arthur Leander, a men whose ambition led to great success, but then who ends up with a life full of regrets for what he hasn’t done or for friends and wives he’s hurt or discarded along the way. His friend Clark ends up playing a significant role post-collapse, although to say much of his character’s development would spoil a bit of the plot.
The book’s title comes from a comic book in Kirsten’s possession, a very rare but beautifully rendered sci-fi story about a space station that has become lost in space, and its hero-scientist Dr. Eleven. The story within the comic book is never revealed to us, but the book’s existence serves as a tie between multiple characters, a plot device for the resolution, and one of the most potent symbols of loss and remembrance within this emotional book that thrives on the heart it finds in a world where everything that seemed to matter is gone.
The novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014, but didn’t even make the final six. If I’m getting the year right, it lost out to Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautifully written but dull The Lowland, Donna Tartt’s smart but overlong The Goldfinch (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), and the eventual winner of the Baileys Prize, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (on my to-be-read shelf). The book may have been on the 2015 longlist instead, in which case I can’t offer an opinion since I haven’t read the winner or the five shortlisted titles, but if it was eligible for the 2014 prize and missed the shortlist, boy did the judges ever screw that one up.
Next up: I’m trudging my way through John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest after finishing Rabbit is Rich last night. They’re both Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners; after I finish this I’ll have read all the winners from 1980 on.