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BOUND TO PLEASE / Musings before and after the end of the world

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterStation Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Picador, 339pp

There’s nothing more exciting than the end of the world. In Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, “Station Eleven,” the apocalypse is brought on by “the Georgia Flu,” a super-efficient virus that wipes out more than 99 percent of humanity in a matter of days. One of the surviving characters, a Canadian paramedic in training, sees what is happening and feels “crushed by the certainty that this … was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.”

The novel glides back and forth across several decades of “before” and “after” but largely skips “during.” Before, the characters have no idea what’s coming. After, they try to forget the worst of it.

Instead, amid beautiful descriptions of a world in ruins, seen mainly through the eyes of a wandering troupe of actors and musicians in North America’s Great Lakes region, the author lets us listen in on trains of thought that link the before and the after.

One old survivor remembers things the younger people around him never knew: “The last time I ate an ice cream cone … The last time I danced in a club. The last time I saw a moving bus. The last time I boarded an airplane that hadn’t been repurposed as living quarters, an airplane that actually took off. The last time I ate an orange.”

In real life, when was the last time you changed a typewriter ribbon, defrosted a freezer, or smelled a mimeograph? If you’re old enough, you may remember when these things were ordinary. If you’re young enough, you may have to Google the word “mimeograph.”

For most of history, people lived in the same world their grandparents grew up in. Nowadays, many people feel they’ve outlived the world they themselves grew up in. Post-apocalyptic literature pushes that modern sense of displacement to an extreme. “Station Eleven” does so consciously, and very well.

A related theme in “Station Eleven” is the evolution — or distortion — of ideas from one generation to the next. For example, the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” is a comforting platitude for one pre-flu woman in this story, but her post-flu son turns it into the mantra of a sinister cult. Other characters include authors, journalists and a would-be playwright. What they know, what they write, and how their readers interpret it don’t always align.

Most of the characters are directly or indirectly linked to a famous actor who dies on the eve of apocalypse in Chapter 1, only to appear again in numerous flashbacks. One of his themes is the variable size of one’s world. Having grown up on a tiny island in British Columbia where everyone knew everyone, he feels liberated upon moving to Toronto, where no one knows him. When he becomes a star and moves to Hollywood, everyone knows him, though he doesn’t know them. After the apocalypse, the survivors are scattered over small settlements where everyone knows everyone again.

Come for the disaster. Stay for the musings.

Where to read

Away from other people. In a cafe or on a train, every cough or sniffle you hear will sound like the beginning of the end.

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