I had this crazy idea all of a sudden, that I was going to go and read as many of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlisted books as I could. This was a moment of madness; I am already committed to TBR20 (with 3 books still to go), and the longlist is called a longlist for a reason (dur, because it is long) and somehow this whole idea spiralled me into a fundamental question about my relationship with reading, this blog and what I’m doing it all for. Which is perhaps an entry for another day when my mind is clearer and I’ve worked it all out. Anyway, the point is that it’s against this backdrop that I read Station Eleven and in some ways it is the book itself which prompted the question. Not necessarily a terrible thing.
Station Eleven is a post apocalyptic novel. The story begins with a play, a production of King Lear. The actor playing Lear, Arthur Leander, has a heart attack on stage. A man watching the play, Jeevan Chaudhary, a trainee paramedic, tries to save him. He fails. As Arthur’s body is rolled away Jeevan comforts a child actress, Kirsten, who plays a non-speaking role as one of Lear’s daughters – something of a dreamlike scene – who had grown fond of Arthur. As Jeevan leaves the theatre he is contacted by a friend who works at a hospital about a virulent strain of flu which is flooding the hospital. Everyone is dying. So the story begins.
Within a week most of the population has died. There is no way to know how much. The usual happens: the lights go out, TV goes off, the internet shuts down, people shoot people in the streets, food runs out, etc. The story of Station Eleven centres around those people connected to the Lear actor, Arthur Leander and we see both the before and after story, again all centring around Leander. We learn of his ex-wife, Miranda, who was an artist, creator of a series of graphic novels called ‘Station Eleven’ from which the title of the book comes. Station Eleven is an advanced space station that is designed to resemble a small planet. It was stolen by Dr. Eleven, a man who took his name from the station, after the Earth was overtaken by a hostile force. Now Station Eleven hides in deep space and its inhabitants are torn between remaining hidden, accepting their new lives, or returning to Earth. As with most worlds, there is an underclass – the Undersea – rebels who seek to return to their roots. The comic book serves as both a reflection of this new world and an idea of how it could be.
The story spins back and forth between the before and after, though rather deliberately. The stories of each of the protagonists unfolds as they each come to terms with their existing world and the world that is unfolding. There is some beautiful writing along the way, like here:
“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.”
There are also some interesting references, like the line from Star Trek Voyager “Survival is insufficient” which as a Seven-of-Nine fan was kind of nice to see there, and there’s a sense that this is a post apocalyptic novel for a new generation, though the references back to Shakespeare are frequent. I think there’s a cleverness there that I’ve missed, but there’s a general sense of a cleverness missed, a self-referencing, the plot a little too deliberate and the slipping back and forth through time more deliberate than unsettling.
Though I was not in the best frame of mind for reading Station Eleven, I’m not sure that’s why I didn’t really like it. There are a few core things which made this a book that was difficult for me to like. For a start, I’m not a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction; I think on this genre there is simply nothing left to say (that may, of course, simply be my lack of imagination) or perhaps nothing left to say that McCarthy’s The Road didn’t already do with impeccable brevity. I don’t think Mandel brings anything new to it here. Yes, she talks of the internet, of the plenty which is not appreciated, the toys we would have to give up and their marvellous complexities: mobile phones, laptop computers, etc. The theatre continues. Some people regret the passing, some people revel in it.
Then there was Station Eleven itself, the comic book. I liked the comic book, I liked the themes it covered and I found myself more interested in the idea of the comic book than the book I was reading. I wished Station Eleven existing, I’d read it. But I’m not sure the point of it gelled here. It just seemed strangely ancillary, and it wasn’t alone. There was a lot that seemed strangely ancillary, disjointed. The prophet, the book about Leander’s life, Clark, the tattoos. Perhaps Mandel was trying to point out that life post-apocalypse would be disjointed, disconnected; that there would be gaps, stories untold, that life would not be a seamless narrative. But that’s how it is now; there is no seamless narrative.
It’s not a bad novel, it would be wrong for me to say that. I enjoyed, to a degree, reading the book and it’s well written and interesting. Perhaps it is simply my prejudice against the post-apocalyptic novel expressing itself here, but for me this book just didn’t quite work; something about it just wasn’t fully realised. It felt like an unfulfilled potential, that Mandel was skirting around something brilliant and just didn’t quite grasp it.
What it did achieve was the huge questioning around how and why I read. Something about reading this book, the feeling of missing the mark, made me realise that reading had become almost a soulless activity. That the books that are great, the ones that really move me are infrequent. This has become particularly true since I’ve been reading more. The more I read, the more infrequently the books that mean something to me become, the more books that I read the more ‘middling’ ones crop up. And it becomes more infrequent for me to return to a loved classic. I think this is something that worries me, that the more driven I am to read the latest and latest books, the further away I become from the re-read, the delving into a familiar friend, the books that stir something meaningful in my mind. I think I am in danger of becoming nothing more than a consumer, and that’s not what I want to be. There is reading as an act of consumption and reading as an act of nutrition. I feel I have moved too far away from the latter. That’s not what reading is for me.