Friday, February 5, 2016

Emily St. John Mandel's Station 11: King Lear, Apocalypse, and the Georgia flu.

While I don't necessarily gravitate toward post-apocalyptic novels, they do show up on my radar frequently. At the end of the year, when I was asking other readers about their best books from 2015, Station Eleven  by Emily St. John Mandel kept coming up, so I couldn't resist.

The story opens on stage at a performance of King Lear as the lead actor Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack. A former member of the paparazzi, in training to be an EMT, tries unsuccessfully to perform CPR. When he leaves the theatre, he gets the unsettling news from a friend in a nearby hospital, that the flu reported in Russia has found its way via plane to Toronto. He stocks up on groceries and then heads to the high-rise apartment of his brother crippled during service in the Middle East.

Kirsten Raymond, a child actress playing one of Lear's daughter as a child who witnesses the death becomes a key character years later, as part of a traveling symphony going from town to town performing Shakespearean plays. The flu that wiped out over ninety percent of the world's population has left the survivors without electricity, once the power grid fails. Cars are abandoned after the gasoline supplies are exhausted, and planes  in the sky become just a distant memory.

The traveling performers find one of their regular stops  at St. Deborah-by-the-Woods, transformed eerily by the presence of a man calling himself The Prophet, spouting random verses from the book of Revelation, and seeking his next wife--usually a young girl. Escaping, the characters find themselves at an old airport where passengers on the last flight into the airport have set up camp and resumed their lives, including one survivor, a friend of the late Arthur Leander, who has set up a museum of artifacts of the former world.

Mandel moves the narrative back and forth between the past and present, revealing details of Leander's life, particularly of his failed marriages, and following his former wives and his only son, born to wife number 2, then returning to the post-disaster world.

Reading the account of the changed world, one can't help wondering if the existence of knowledge of a higher civilization wouldn't allow a more timely recovery of that lost world. That hope is reflected--just a glimmer--at the climax of the novel.

Some of the details of the flu outbreak remind me of my friend Alison Kemper's YA Zombie novel, Donna of the Dead--particularly the possibility of survivors, sailors at sea for instance, untouched by the disease. Having read plenty of accounts--both fiction and fact--about the Medieval plagues, I was intrigued too by the idea of people who are resistant to such disease and their potential for survivor's guilt.

The dramatic challenge of the characters as they learn to adapt to the post-flu world intrigued me--but I'm still not convinced to get my flu shot.

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