Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Dream of our Past: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014)




Toward the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic, literary science fiction novel, Station Eleven, several characters contemplate whether or not to teach their children about the world before...the one that had electricity, planes, phones, computers, and convenience. They now live in a world of tiny, isolated towns hiding from feral children and insane prophets. Yet the old world remains all around them, silently watching as if the right word could spirit them back to life. But there is no word, and apparently, no way to conjure up the world that only twenty-odd years ago shaped their lives and dreams. Yet the children of ‘today’ are haunted by the shapes of yesteryear, which even their parents still inhabit in a haunted, hollowed fashion. As one of the characters remarks, “Does it still make sense to teach kids about the way things were?” (269).

Mandel’s book, which spends about equal time in both words (that is, the world before and after the “Georgian flu” which wipes out 99% of the population), is clearly about more than a “what if?” scenario. It’s about our world and the ruins that lie scattered about our feet, which remain in the form of art, literature, history, and memory. Fittingly, the book is largely about a group called “The Traveling Symphony,” a rag-tag group of actors and musicians who tramp around Lake Michigan to perform to the scattered remains of humanity. Their repertoire almost exclusively consists of Shakespeare plays (chiefly Lear and Romeo and Juliet) and works of classical music. This is not done out of pretension but for the simple reason that, according to one of its founders, “audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings...People want what was best about their world” (38).

Responding to the previous misgiving about teaching kids “the way things were,” another character says, “I think I’d want my kid to know. All that knowledge, those incredible things we had” (269). But upon further argument, the character qualifies this statement by admitting, “I suppose the question is, does knowing these things make them more or less happy?” (270). This becomes one of the great questions of the novel: twenty years after the end of civilization, does remembering cause more pain or pleasure? Are memories of what once was a burden, or necessary baggage to build a new world? The characters of the novel answer this question in several ways: one of the main characters, Kirsten Raymonde, a former child actress who has endured a violent apprenticeship on the road, has literally erased all her memories of Year One. She only retains two mementos of her former life: a series of magazine clippings of the once-famous actor, Arthur Leander, with whom she once performed King Lear as a child; and two copies of an obscure comic book called Station Eleven. Surprisingly, these memories share a surprising link which connects not only her past to her present, but binds all the main characters of the novel together, even if they never truly glimpse the connection.

For Kirsten, the comic—which is about a space station forced to flee an invaded earth—has uncanny parallels to her own life. But more than this, the comic illustrates the motto of the Traveling Symphony itself—“survival is insufficient.” This quote, which comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (not coincidentally, about the Borg), reminds her that history and the past does matter, and that leaving it by the side of the road to ease your burden won’t help you get ‘there’ any faster. Quite simply, people prefer to be reminded of what was “best” in the world, even if they can no longer remember a time when airplanes dotted the sky and the internet knew their secrets. For Kirsten, the comic helps her overcome her childhood trauma and her tenuous identity as a traveling performer. Each one of us, after all, is more than a single event or a single profession. Every human is part of a seemingly invisible, yet endless chain of meaning, and the more we read the book, the more of this meaning is revealed to us—and occasionally, to the characters in question.

For example, as we bounce back and forth in time, we learn that Station Eleven is the work of Miranda Carroll, who turns out to be the first wife of Arthur Leander. Miranda has spent her entire adult life secretly working on this comic, though none of the men in her life—first her artist boyfriend, later her husband—understand or even care about its significance. At one point, when her boyfriend, Pablo, challenges her about it, she snaps, “You don’t have to understand it...it’s mine” (87). This seems like a statement Kirsten would make herself when asked “why do you hang onto an old, tattered comic book that no one even remembers?” Art is a way of knowing and possessing one’s self, since it makes the self (which is intangible) present in a way that can be seen and felt. Miranda constantly wonders who she really is, as she adores the corporate job taken to support her boyfriend (which he mocks her for), and later despises her Hollywood existence with Arthur (which the world applauds and envies). Only the comic allows her to ‘remember’ herself and create a new world—ironically, by writing about a world that is lost. The same could equally be said about Kirsten.

Indeed, both Miranda and Kirsten have made compromises that provide them an unconventional happiness. Miranda’s job, though cold and corporate, gives her plenty of free time to draw Station Eleven and dream up new adventures. Kirsten comes to the same conclusion when she considers settling down and leaving the road. As her friend August advises, “There’s got to be a steadier life than this.” Yet in a Miranda-like voice, she immediately responds, “Sure, but in what other life would I get to perform Shakespeare?” (135). Shakespeare, too, is a prized memento of the old world, as her final day before the epidemic was spent acting beside Arthur in a production of King Lear. Now she has graduated to the role of Cordelia, supporting another Lear in a vastly different world. Sure, there are easier lives, lives with more stability and structure...but each woman gives up what she should want for what she does. It is all the more fitting than Miranda’s forgotten creation (the comic) gives Kirsten the strength to go on, guiding her steps and thoughts as she explores the unknown.

The ability to see the hidden potential of seemingly meaningless and inconsequential items (and events) is another theme of the novel. Just as we gradually learn about the creation and fate of Station Eleven, so we also realize that chance meetings, overhead conversations, and forgotten intimacies have long-ranging effects—and can even shape the future. Clark Thompson, another main character (a childhood friend of Arthur’s), creates the Museum of Civilization in an abandoned airport to highlight the so-called obsolete items of the lost world. Here he collects credit cards, driver’s licenses, laptops, and snow globes. Yet each item has an origin and a history, as he explains:

“Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly-line worker who watched the glove glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of a woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes, creates, shipping containers. Consider the card games played belowdecks in the evenings on the ship carrying the containers across the ocean, a hand stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, a haze of blue smoke in dim light, the cadences of a half dozen languages united by common profanities, the sailors’ dreams of land and women, these men for whom the ocean was a gray-line horizon to be traversed in ships the size of overturned skyscapers” (255).

So many hands and minds and countries joined together to create a single object and deliver it into the hands of a child, who imaginatively re-creates winter on a whim. Seen this way, the prosaic becomes poetic, and the simplest gas-station knick-knack becomes a work of art. So why can’t we see this, when everyone knows that someone has to imagine it, create it, produce it, ship it, and buy it? Here we come back to the importance of memory. While none of us will ever see every link in the chain, its important to know they exist, and to understand, however imperfectly, how the links form the chain. In the new world, children learn about airplanes and telephones even though they’ll never use either one. Today, we learn about historical events and cultures long gone, which can sound temptingly like trivia. And it is—if we treat it as such. But the ‘trivia’ still functions, and it still informs our world. A child of today can watch a Shakespeare play and glimpse, even though the old language, the thousand movies and TV shows that climbed out of it. In the same way, a child of tomorrow can sit in the ruins of an aircraft and imagine it climbing through the air, and can understand, even through the haze of time, how it inspired an entire century of travelers.

In short, Station Eleven is that most successful of science fiction novels, in that it makes you forget that you’re reading anything about dystopian worlds or future calamities. It’s simply good fiction about sharply realized characters who are struggling to find themselves, save themselves, and forge meaningful relationships with others. Many of them die—indeed, Arthur dies on the very first page—but all of them find something important which gives them wonder and hope, even in a world that seems bereft of either one. Toward the end of the book, in the comic-within-the book, Dr. Eleven asks his deceased mentor, Captain Lonagan, what death was like. His response: “It was exactly like waking up from a dream” (330). Perhaps life is the dream we wake from, gladly, into a better world. Yet the best fiction performs the same function—shaking us gently into a body we forgot was our own, as we grudgingly close the book and learn about ourselves—and our world—all over again. 

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