not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
The following post was taken from my Goodreads review:
An overview for the curious: Station Eleven takes place about 20 years after a virus has wiped out 99.99% of humanity. It frequently goes back to the time before the virus, but the main action, in this post-apocalyptic landscape, follows characters in The Traveling Symphony, an itinerant group of musicians and actors that moves from settlement to settlement performing music and plays.
So I’ll get this out of the way first. My nitpicks with the postapocalyptic world Mandel creates in this novel were as follows:
And now that that’s out of the way, I can actually get to reviewing the book Mandel wrote, rather than the one part of me wishes she did. It seems to be a common theme, when criticizing postapocalyptic/dystopian fiction, to nitpick details, a way for the lazier among us to participate in the base motions of criticism without contributing anything constructive, insightful, or particularly helpful for someone wanting to know if the book is worth their time. It’s also worth pointing out that Mandel’s novel has a built-in explanation for a lot of these nitpicks, as it covers such a small portion of geography and time that what I see as worldbuilding errors could be down to the quirks of a small collection of communities in postapocalyptic Earth, and is not meant to represent other societies that have formed.
The funny thing is, for all I’ve written about it, this isn’t entirely a post-apocalyptic novel. In fact, I’d say it’s divided about evenly between the pre- and post-apocalypse, with lots of the pre-apocalypse scenes reading like a straightforward literary novel about the consolations of aging and the loss of our younger, idealistic selves. At times it feels as though we are reading a literary novel cunningly disguised as postapocalyptic science fiction.
I’ve noticed that a lot of literary novels that attempt to adopt elements of fantasy and sci-fi seem to contain an internal struggle between whether the novel’s world or characters should get more focus, and that’s certainly on display here. The pre-apocalypse characters have little to no story of their own, their job seems to involve sitting around being well-developed while ruminating on the way work and relationships change your life; from a plot perspective, they seemingly exist exclusively to show how a variety of objects got into the backpack of a post-apocalypse character, which is a lot of time to spend on the backstory of an inventory.
By contrast, the post-apocalypse characters are quickly-drawn and fairly basic in their thoughts and relationships; Mandel spends more time here describing the world and its attendant delights and dangers, cutting the characters down to a handful of traits and goals. Reading the novel, I became more aware than ever of the need for a unity of action and psychology in books like this: every action the characters take must define them, and the world around them should be built in such a way that these actions can have the same developmental powers as the character description stuff does in “literary” fiction.
If there is a common ground between the pre- and post-apocalypse sections, it manifests in the persistent theme of work: how it defines and warps people, how the stuff we chase for half our lives isn’t actually the stuff we want, and how art can act as both an outlet from all this and a consolation for it. It is some good shit, and the main reason I’m likely to return to this novel.
There’s also the way that everything in the past connects with what we see in the future, if only in the contents of one character’s backpack. But I have to admit I was a little confused by this desire to explain how everything got everywhere. The primary antagonists have the motto “Everything happens for a reason,” and it’s heavily implied that this desire to answer the unanswerable, to force oneself to understand the reasons behind the chaos of life (and especially the horrors of an arbitrary virus-based apocalypse), has driven them insane, or at least made them willing to do terrible things in the name of this all-encompassing Answer.
And yet, the novel exhibits the same desire to explain, to sort out, to assign a reason to everything, even as it claims that this impulse is dangerous and bad. Maybe it’s a natural feature of the novel to be hypocritical–we’re talking about a genre that began, in Don Quixote, with a warning about the dangers of reading novels. Maybe the novel is an opportunity to investigate our own need for this type of artificial neatness in our fiction. Maybe it goes back to the author’s understanding of religion, which has far less room for mystery and uncertainty than most religion, in my experience, contains. Maybe I’ve just retreated into nitpicking again.
It’d be a shame if I have, because Station Eleven deserves better than nitpicking: the world has been created with imagination and verve, the prose makes every word matter, and if it was twice as long, I’d have happily read every page. I’ve spent a fair amount of time criticizing it, but it’s one of those books that’s fun to wrestle with, to consider and think about long after you’ve put it down. Read it if you haven’t.