Texas Book Festival: 'Station Eleven'
Emily St. Mandel's apocalyptic novel reviewed
By Kimberley Jones,
12:30PM, Fri. Oct. 24, 2014
The end of the world is big business – on film, on TV, and in publishing. That explains this year's Texas Book Festival session on "Aftermath and Armageddon." It features two authors whose books in that vein have received some very serious attention this year: Edan Lepucki and Emily St. John Mandel.
Lepucki saw her post-apocalypse novel California get championed by Stephen Colbert during his feud with Amazon over its treatment of Hachette Book Group, and as a result, it was catapulted onto the New York Times best-seller list. Meanwhile, Mandel's after-the-pandemic saga was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Here is Kimberley Jones' review. – Robert Faires
by Emily St. Mandel
Knopf, 353 pp., $24.95
As Ebola panic rises, you have to wonder if there’s much appetite for a story about a pandemic flu that wipes out 99% of the earth’s population.
That’s a joke. Of course there’s an appetite. In novels, films, and on television, storytellers can’t invent new grisly ends for humanity fast enough. Our ongoing obsession with post-apocalypse fiction isn’t going away (just ask the record-breaking 17.3 million viewers who fed on last week’s The Walking Dead season premiere); all we can hope for are superior spins of the wheel, as is the case with this newly minted National Book Award finalist.
Station Eleven slightly puts off the end of the world to deal first with the end of one man’s life. A Hollywood has-been trying to resuscitate his career by treading the boards, Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack mid-performance as King Lear. That night, some of the cast and crew gather in the lobby for drinks, still reeling from the shock and oblivious to the coming catastrophe, which novelist Emily St. Mandel cunningly wields at chapter’s end like a dagger concealed in a boot: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
Arthur Leander is the spine of this wide wing-spanned narrative, which moves between the before and after of the apocalypse, and various characters whose paths have crossed his. They include an ex-wife, a one-time celebrity paparazzo, and the child actress Kirsten who, 20 years after the collapse, travels by foot with a ragged troupe of entertainers to perform Shakespeare and Mozart to pockets of survivors and, yes, the occasional crackpot prophet.
The stop-and-go structure can be frustrating – the discrete storylines are so engrossing, the jumps between them can feel as abrupt as a channel change – and some of the book’s reveals are thuddingly obvious. But St. Mandel’s doomsday landscape is imaginatively detailed (“The horse, Bernstein, was missing half his tail, because the first cello had just restrung his bow last week”), and she strikes a fine balance between elegy and action writing. – Kimberley Jones
Emily St. John Mandel will appear at the Texas Book Festival session Aftermath and Armageddon with Edan Lepucki on Saturday, 3pm, in the Kirkus Reviews Tent, 11th and Brazos. For more information, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.