“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel- Book Review

station-elevenEven as I set out to review this book, I’m not sure how to go about it.  As we’ve discussed here before, literary appreciation is a subjective exercise, at least in part.  And what makes any particular book “good” or “bad” has a lot to do with who you are, the context you are reading that book in, your taste in books, and what other criteria you rely on in assigning that book a value.  There is a body of readers for whom “enjoyment” is the only measure of success.  If they read a book and like it, then that is a “good” book, and there’s nothing you can do to convince them otherwise.  Contrarily, there are bodies of literary criticism for whom nothing written in the last hundred years or more is worth the paper it is printed on.  These same broad general theories have application to specific pieces of literature.  In that context, would I recommend Station Eleven to you?  That depends.

Certain books I think should be read, even if you strongly suspect you will not enjoy them.  I’m not saying this book is or is not one of those.  Many of the people I read and discuss books with had read this one and recommended it.  So reading the book had value, if only to lay the foundation for further discussion with them.  It was a National Book Award finalist, and a National Best Seller, for whatever value you assign to those accomplishments.  Maybe too early to tell if it will hold an established place “in the canon,” but if you read and/or write and/or talk about literature, this is probably a book you should read, if only for the context.

Without giving too much away, the book takes place largely in a post-apocalyptic setting (though not the usual post-nuclear, everything turned to ashes post-apocalypse world many writers/movie makers often envisage).  As a setting, this is not my favorite.  Though I have read and enjoyed books so set, it seems like this is usually the territory of science fiction which, as a genre, typically does very little for me.

There are overlapping layers of story, in time and setting.  I liked the idea of this literary device, but at the same time it felt, in its execution, a little bit too much like a device to me.  As I’ve also discussed here, it felt almost too neat.  Too clean.  Too…I don’t know…contrived seems a little bit too harsh/strong, but kind of like that.

Some of the storylines I would have liked to see further developed.  I enjoyed the depth of the characters, but some I felt I still didn’t know even by the end of the book.

Overall, I found the story very enjoyable to read, and read it very quickly.  It felt very timely, and I thought there was an interesting undertone regarding how much modern society depends on technology, and a sort of frightening glimpse into what society probably would do if, virtually overnight, all our modern conveniences disappeared forever.

A very subtle allusion to religion and perhaps a gentle jab at Christian zealotry.  I wouldn’t have minded seeing these elements played out a little bit more thoroughly.

I think my favorite part of the book had nothing to do with the “story within the story” of Station Eleven, or anything actually happening to the main group 15 or so years post-plague, but an excerpt that came out almost as a flashback in an interview that one of the main characters, Clark, has conducted pre-disaster.  He’s talking to this corporate woman (his job is to come in and find corporate executives who have some really promising qualities but also some really negative ones, and to “coach” or brainwash or, I don’t know, consult those negative qualities out of them).  I liked the whole section, but my focus is on pp. 162-163 in the original hardcover version, and specifically, if I may, I would like to focus on two small paragraphs:

I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed.  Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them.  They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped…but I don’t think he even realizes it.  You probably encounter people like him all the time.  High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.

Part of me would have much more enjoyed a book devoted exclusively to these “high-functioning sleepwalkers.”  Yet, as near as I can tell, this was just a passing portion of the back story, with no implications or significance to the broader meaning or purpose of the novel.  I guess there could have been subtle insinuations regarding how you can think you’re unhappy in any life, but when it comes down to it, as long as you’re not dead from plague or being hunted by hyper-polygamic ninja prophets, your life just isn’t that bad, and you don’t really have much to complain about [don’t pay any too close attention to me; I’ve been in a perpetual state of “mid-life” crisis since right around the age of 12, with no sign of waning].

Did I like the book?  Well, go back to the beginning of this post.  What would it mean even if I did?  I’m actually still not sure how to feel about the book.  I’m still thinking about it, and will be thinking about it for some time.  The book has left me pensive and unsettled.  Some would argue that means it’s “good.”  I enjoyed it; had fun reading it; am enjoying thinking and talking about it.  I liked the writing.  The book created a distinct and beautiful and haunting ambiance.  Visually, I could picture it.  I come away a fervent admirer of St. John Mendel’s talents.  Read, and let’s discuss.

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