Emily St John Mandel
'Shakespeare and weapons and music'
I've been seriously debating whether to add another glowing review of Station Eleven to the numerous glowing reviews already in existence. I've decided not to. But, that doesn't mean that I don't want to talk about it, far from it. Instead I'm going to talk about my favourite element of the novel, which is an element that is already close to my heart: art.
I'm a huge fan of 'the arts' and culture in all its forms - I love the theatre, books, museums, music, art, photography. Station Eleven, I think, is a celebration of the power art and culture have to unite people, to bring hope and, most importantly, to bring happiness. There are many things I love about Station Eleven, but this is the one that will make me remember the book for a long time to come.
I know this is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel and novels in this genre generally act on some level as a warning, usually letting us know that if we carry on doing what we're doing then this is a possible outcome. This is the reason that I usually avoid dystopian fiction as such deep, disturbing thoughts often freak me out. Station Eleven adds another component to the typical dystopian tropes, which both emphasises the warning and lessens its impact: comfort. I found this novel comforting. Is that odd, or did anyone else feel the same?
The presence of theatre and performance in this dystopian world full of death, emptiness and sadness is comforting because it suggests that even if things go utterly pear-shaped and civilisation falls apart, then we will still be able to hold on to a part of humanity. Personally I think creativity is such a human trait and it is one of the few things that stop us from being a faceless mass (wow, cynical much?). And the fact that the big S-man (also known around this parts as Willy-Shakes) lives on is just a huge plus in my opinion.
I found the role of the Travelling Symphony was often unsettling and frequently incongruous. I loved that the performers have slowly taken on their instruments as their identity - almost as if music has redefined who they are in the world after the epidemic. But it is the combination of death, violence and art that unsettled me most by demonstrating the new world order. To use one of my favourite words at uni - it is a startling juxtaposition. I think it is that combination of art and death that illustrates the difference between the before and after most clearly. This makes Arthur's death whilst performing King Lear an even more significant moment in the novel as it becomes a premonition of what is to come.
There is so much more that I could talk about with regards to this subject, but as this post is already threatening to become an essay, I'm just going to make one final point. When the Symphony perform in front of the Prophet at St Deborah by the Water the audience react in a variety of ways - one guy is reduced to silent tears - that are not dissimilar to the ways audiences not under the control of, dare I say it, a maniac. So, there we have it: art in all its forms is a unifying force, it can be enjoyed by anyone no matter their belief system (obviously it depends how far their belief system goes), no matter their age, gender or values. This novel reminds us that art can help us cope with all manner of things (death, solitude, sadness), it reminds us that beauty can always be found somewhere, even if it's hidden under a stone in the dirt. Ultimately it can inspire us to look forward, to move forward, and to find new ways to survive when survival seems impossible.
Station Eleven may not be a flawless novel (is there even such a thing?), but it holds an irresistible power over you as a reader. That power is not nameless, it is not obscure – it is simply the power of the arts, of artistic expression and of the ability they have to unite seemingly disparate and irreconcilable people. If the world as we know it can end yet Shakespeare live on, then that gives me such hope. I never turn down an opportunity to be hopeful.