STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven has perhaps the most appealing elevator pitch I’ve ever heard: a traveling symphony and theater troupe performs Shakespeare in a post-apocalyptic world. How can you not want to read that book immediately? When I heard that there was a comic book integral to the plot, it felt as though this novel had been written just for me. I expected a genre-bending, innovative work of fiction, a fresh take (thank goodness!) on the end of the world. Emily St. John Mandel has accomplished all of this, but she has also crafted an incredibly touching ode to our own time. Station Eleven is a terrifying, beautiful book, one that I’m guessing will stay with me for a long time.

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Station Eleven follows a traveling symphony as it makes its rounds through makeshift communities in a new world, one still rebuilding after a terrible pandemic. Twenty years earlier, 99% of the world’s population was wiped out by the Georgia Flu, a fever that spread rapidly and killed those infected hours upon contracting. The novel explores the perspectives of many characters, as well as their lives before, during, and long after the nightmare of the disease’s spread. Part of the joy of the novel is learning how these characters are connected, so I don’t want to give too much away. If the novel can be said to have one main character, it would be Kirsten, an actress in the theater troupe who was a young girl when the pandemic started. She has scant memories of the world before the fever, and so she is fascinated by anything she can learn about that the way things used to be. She is also obsessed with two comic books given to her when she was very young: beautifully drawn science fiction stories about a colony fleeing a doomed Earth aboard a planet-sized ship called Station Eleven. As the symphony travels their usual route, it becomes clear that some of the towns they’ve visited have changed. A new cult has taken power, one with a leader that Kirsten feels a strange connection to, and as the symphony continues in their travels, it becomes clear that they are in more danger than ever before.

The power of Station Eleven lies in its incredible details. Of all the post-apocalyptic worlds I’ve read, this one is the most believable, and as such, the most haunting. St. John Mandel’s rendering of the world in disaster, and the surviving world that emerges, feel so spot-on. Some of it is scary, but some of it demonstrates the resilience of humanity, and the ability for groups of people to come together. One of my favorite scenes took place in a quarantined airport in the first days of the pandemic. The remaining people needed to break into the airport restaurant for food, but enough traces of civilization kept them from wanting to steal, and they hesitated until one man proudly held up his credit card, set it on the counter, and promised to charge all the food to it. It’s a sweet, funny moment that rings so true.

The book, despite being downright terrifying at times, is a really sweet tribute to the good in humanity. This should be expected from a novel about Shakespeare being performed after the world ends. Kirsten reflects on this in one of the most beautiful passages of the book, one that almost reads more like a poem:

“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining half a mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheek-bone half-erased by candlelight […] Shakespeare was the third born to his parents, but the first to survive infancy. Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theater again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king.”

St. John Mandel imagines a ravaged world that still has hope, art, beauty, community. While at times it seems eerily prescient, Station Eleven ultimately filled me with a renewed belief in the best of us, the parts that can hopefully survive any disaster.

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THE BOYS OF MY YOUTH by Jo Ann Beard

Scene One takes place in the living room of my college apartment. I’m enrolled in my first creative writing workshop, Intro to Creative Nonfiction, and I’ve set up at the little table my roommate and I use as a kitchen table (even though it’s in the living room). I have highlighters and a pen ready to go, and the photocopied, stapled pages of my reading assignment stacked before me: “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard. I’m ready to take notes on her writing style, her rhetorical strategies, the way she’ll thread together pieces of her life into a narrative, one that will illuminate something for the reader, something for me. I’m ready to study her craft, as I have done with every other reading assignment for this course. But by the end of the essay, my highlighter is long abandoned, my pen useless. I’m actively sobbing, not just wet to the cheek but shoulders heaving, nose running, sobbing.

Scene Two takes place in a coffee shop, a little under a week ago. I’m finally reading the book from which this essay was photocopied, The Boys of My Youth. It’s been exactly as good as I’d thought it would be, elegant and heartbreaking in all the best ways. I’ve reached “The Fourth State of Matter,” and for a moment I pause, remembering my reaction last time. Last time, I tell myself, I was completely unprepared for the content of the essay. This time I know what’s coming. I’ll be able to keep it together. About halfway through the essay, though, I’m sobbing again. The actual kind again. This essay…there’s just nothing I can do about it.

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The Boys of My Youth is a collection of personal essays by Jo Ann Beard. As the title would suggest, the essays do explore past relationships, including a marriage that, throughout the course of the book, achingly disintegrates. But the scope is broader than just that. Beard writes about her mother, cousins, coworkers, even beloved old toys. The theme that links them all seems to be love, or more specifically, the moment (or moments) when a great love changes, when something makes it turn, move, grow into something else. The result is often devastating, but Beard writes with such clarity that the book never reads as weepy (my reaction to one essay aside). If anything, there is a lot of hope in these essays, for as Beard examines these pieces of her life, they are made present again. The act of studying them allows them to persist, allows the lost loves of Beard’s life to be changed, rather than to disappear forever.

One thing that Beard is particularly good at is writing from her perspective as a toddler. She is able to perfectly inhabit her childlike sensibility, and at the same time, communicate the child logic in a way that makes piercing sense. Often, a writer is able to inhabit the voice of the version of themselves they were within the story and then reflect on their past self with their current perspective; Beard is somehow able to do both in the same moment. The best example of this is in her essay “Bulldozing the Baby,” which is about a baby doll named Hal that she’d had as a companion. After a scene in which Beard had put Hal in the bathtub, Beard’s mother hangs him on the clothesline while Beard plays in the sandbox:

“‘I am not hurting him,’ my mother said dangerously as she pinned him up there. I better not pull a trick like that again or somebody’s in trouble […] I have on blue sunglasses with wiener dogs on the frames. I can pull up my shirt and fill my belly button with sand except if I do she’ll dig it out with the washcloth tonight. I’m starting to learn cause and effect. Hal in the bathtub means Hal up in the air.”

The most moving essay, of course, is “The Fourth State of Matter.” In this essay, Beard situates the reader into life after a divorce: the house is empty, squirrels are nesting in the abandoned bedroom that once belonged to a husband, a beloved dog is getting sicker. The only solace Beard can seem to find is at her job as an editor for a physics journal, and she recounts her relationship to her coworkers, the scientists she has come to know so well. This journal was at the University of Iowa, and in 1991, a graduate student shot and killed Beard’s colleagues in their offices while she wasn’t there; she had gone home early for the day. In this essay, Beard grapples with the unimaginable. It is heart-wrenching and so beautifully written; it truly is hard to describe. In a way it’s a tribute to those who were killed, and to the ways the lives of others can touch us. In another way, it feels like an essential record. This happened, I found myself thinking over and over again, and that feels important.

The Boys of My Youth is a beautifully written close examination of the seemingly small moments that mark us, that change the way we look at our world and at ourselves. It will break your heart, but it’s worth it.