Sunday, October 25, 2015

Not Quite: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Novelist Emily St. John Mandel. (Photo by Dese'Rae L. Stage)

Though it won the prestigious 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award, for best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom in the previous year, as well as this year’s Toronto Book Award, Emily St. John Mandel, author of the dystopian novel Station Eleven, resists her novel being classified as SF. Her reply when it was nominated for the U.S. National Book Award late last year, and referenced as one of the few SF novels so honoured, was to tweet, “I actually don't think of Station Eleven as sci-fi, but am fully prepared to concede that I may be alone in this...”. One reason given by her for this view is that it didn’t contain futuristic technology. As it’s set in the near future, I can’t imagine why it would. Besides, I’m not sure how you would classify a book about our world after it has been almost completely decimated by a plague, as anything but science fiction, but even if you didn’t, Station Eleven, for all its many virtues, falls flat as fully satisfying literature or, for that matter, as successful science fiction.

The strongest aspects of the novel are its opening chapters, beginning with the collapse and death on stage, of a heart attack, of famed and troubled Hollywood actor Arthur Leander as he performs King Lear at Toronto’s Elgin Winter Garden Theatre. Present that night, and among the few survivors of the ‘Georgia Plague’, which is soon to wipe out 90% of humanity, are Jeevan, an EMT trainee, who tries in vain to save Leander and Kirsten, one of the child actresses who were part of the production and had a sympathetic bond with the much older man. They figure prominently in the next part of the book, which flashes forward about twenty years later as a motley group of actors travels the back roads of the United States performing Shakespeare and other classics for the masses, as part of their desperate attempt to keep the remnants of civilization alive.

Mandel’s descriptive powers are at their peak at the beginning, as she carefully dramatizes Leander’s death and its immediate aftermath, particularly as a group of his fellow actors and technicians from the production have a drink in the theatre bar as they discuss/mourn what has just happened in their midst. It’s startling and foreboding in equal measure as she delineates their fate when she writes, “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

The sequences as Toronto quickly succumbs to the plague, in effect dies, as Jeevan ponders what to do next, are elegiac, low key, and almost matter of fact in their telling – much like Toronto, a generally undramatic city itself. (I’ll confess to getting a kick out of this setting as much of it takes place not far from where I actually live.) It’s when Mandel tries to extend her tale, into the post-apocalyptic future, that the novel stumbles, loses much of its literary thread and limps to an unimaginative, even clichéd conclusion.

Part of this can be attributed, to her lack of affinity for the tropes of the science fiction genre, even if she doesn’t think it applies to her book. She’s not alone in this. One of our greatest writers, Philip Roth, in his acclaimed novel The Plot Against America tried to imagine an America where aviation hero, isolationist and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh became President and slowly started to turn the U.S. fascist as well as squeezing the nation’s Jews. The problem is that, despite its vivid, semi-autobiographical nature (Roth was a kid when Lindbergh was on the scene) and fine writing, Roth couldn’t take the dazzling leap of imagination that would make the book sing, so it fizzled as it wound its way down, unconvincingly, to its prosaic denouement, proffering a flat resolution to its initial provocative premise. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale may have been thought out in its delineation of a future Fundamentalist-run America but she neglected to realistically explain how it came to fruition, which is why I never bought into its vision as a real futuristic possibility, which the best SF, such as Walter M. Miller Jr’.s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, for one, does so well. (Atwood, at least, is now conceding that that novel as well as her Oryx and Crake trilogy is actually SF; she could hardly deny it when so many people called her on original distancing and denial of their obvious genre elements.)

Thus, Station Eleven becomes much less interesting and compelling as it moves forward in time. Its created world reminded me of George A. Romero’s similarly themed but not SF movie Knightriders, as well as superior SF novels like John Varley’s recent Slow Apocalypse, where the loss of all oil leads to a impoverished, technologically depleted Earth or Cormac McCarthy’s so very dark, disturbing, morally bankrupt future of The Road. Both those novelistic worlds were believably laid out and thought out. But Station Eleven, with its flashforwards and flashbacks and differing points of view, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Sometimes what we lost is paramount in its literary mind; other times it’s the poignant interactions and connections between its diverse characters. But Mandel rarely meshes the two to satisfying effect. Maybe that’s why its strongest, most indelible character remains Leander himself, a decent man who has become lost in Hollywood excess and success and has come to question the very fibre of his being, wondering who is he, exactly? The rest of the figures in the book, including Jeevan, Kirsten, Leander’s ex-wife Miranda, and old friend Clark, while convincing, don’t linger in the memory as much as Leander. The introduction of the comic book Miranda has drawn, which affects Kirsten especially, is also less than it might have been in the hands of a writer more comfortable with science fiction and its symbolic elements. (See, again, A Canticle for Leibowitz.)

Similarly, even though some sequences in the latter part of the novel, such as the ins and outs of a burgeoning community, set up in an abandoned American airport, where Clark finds himself, do fascinate, so much of the rest of Station Eleven, including the plot pivotal introduction of a self-styled and dangerous ‘prophet’ don’t, offering up lacklustre scenarios instead. Late in the book, Mandel offers a significant revelation about Leander’s death, which I think was a big mistake. I won’t spoil it but, suffice to say, it minimizes that important part of Station Eleven. And her last line and portrayed situation in the novel is absurd and so familiar from other SF novels and TV shows. It seems that she honestly did not know how to end this book, a fatal flaw in any endeavour but more so in dystopian books which must linger in memory in order to be effective. Station Eleven only occasionally does that. Mostly, it displays a talented writer who, clearly, bit off more than she can chew. I’ll ascribe the near unanimous effusive reviews of the novel, by the book critics and her peers, as recognition of her literary abilities while also evincing myopia for her deficiencies as a conceptual writer, evident in so much of this disappointing effort. I wish I could do the same.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he recently concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country, which looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He is currently teaching a course entitled The Truth About Documentaries, which examines the many aspects of the documentary film, at LIFE Institute.

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