YOLO: “You Oughta Look Out”

“…the idea of dragging souls across the landscape like cans of string” (309).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

When my newspaper students set out to choose the top news stories of 2014 this week (as an assignment on newsworthiness and the eight factors involved) most every single pair chose the “Ebola Outbreak” as a top news story.  Without sounding painfully unsentimental, ebola has killed 4,887 approximately, and four million civilian casualties happened in the Vietnam War.  It’s all how you look at numbers, and I’m not saying that those lives didn’t matter (Ebola lives), but I am saying that it’s a wonder to me sometimes how America does math.

Part of the conversation that I believe in having is one about poverty, and the major differences and obstacles between first world countries and third world countries.  As an American teacher, I can’t really speak of the experience in the third world, but as an American teacher teaching in the highest poverty county in North Carolina, I can speak to the conditions of life for people who get very few glances of empathy and instead are pushed down by excuses.

I was thinking about these ideas (epidemics, poverty, childhood) while reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the National Book Award winning story of a post-apocalyptic world where a variation of the swine flu kills 99% of the population and leaves a band of hopeful Shakespearian symphony members, an old man in an airport running a Museum of Civilization, a young boy from Jerusalem who becomes a prophet following the light he read about as a child in a comic book, and the wifely remnants of a dead actor, hoping for some sort of epiphany that will break back a world that only returns in glimpses.

Ebola, the shoe string of death @ CDC.Gov

Nathan Burton’s design for the Dr. Eleven comic in Station Eleven is part of the Picador marketing program. @ Thought Catalog

Each main character of the story holds on to artifacts left in their hands from a life before where running water was a given not an opportunity, or finding books of poetry would send someone on a search through a used bookstore shelf rather than shuffling behind someone’s locked and empty shell of a home.  In the story, the founder of The Museum of Civilization displays things as simple as credit cards, iPhones, and passport photos – things that in the first world, we take for granted.  He puts his wishes on the idea that a man can just leave his credit card near a register if the world just happens to start up again. Kristen, who is a member of the traveling symphony, performs as Titania to relive a few moments of fallen snow on a stage in her childhood.  The only real difference now is her obsession with a dead actor and the two knives permanently drawn into her wrist.

Side note:  how perfect is Emily St. John Mandel’s name as the author of this book.  It’s almost soul-clenchingly creepy with the “Saint John” part of her name in full force between two seemingly usual names – Emily and Mandel.  I just found that a strange coincidence.

Station Eleven is brilliantly written and I’m sure no one would disagree with me, but I did have to plough through it and convince myself to pick it up again.  I do believe that it burns the stick at both ends.  This book is hoping to achieve a life-after-earth-as-we-know-it quality which can be steeped in coincidences that leave the reader feeling squeamish about how easy the stone age might be, but it also relies on the story of one man who connects four very different people at different parts of their lives.

YOLO @ brighterlife.com.pg (Creative Commons)

The book opens with this man who is playing King Lear in the stage play of Shakespeare.  I think Mandel’s use of Shakespeare is beautiful, but boarders on obsession.  Must Shakespeare be the King of Pop in literature, still? I know, I know, he created a whole language that we still use today, but I am just SO OVER that man’s wit.  I do understand the need to hold on to the old world, and what’s more old than Shakespearian ideals. Am I right? (I think Chaucer or the author of Beowulf would have some problems with this blog post. I would pay to see them battle it out).

Each character in the novel; old wives, airport survivors, Kristen, and a son, all represent this living flame in Arthur Leander.  Using Arthur, the novel is willing to do so many things to almost poke fun at our current American attitudes.  Arthur’s wives must escape paparazzi, one even that claims to have a soul for most of the story.  Authur’s friends must deal with his considerable drop in empathy once he “makes it big” as a stage actor.  And his death … all the cliches that can come from “dying too soon,” and “YOLO” come into play when the actor that everyone else on the apocalypse map stems from, dies suddenly before the flu even hits on a stage of plastic snow, under the cupped hands of the lonely.

Shakespeare @ Creative Commons Wiki

I think this is a story that won’t grow old for a really long time.  It has definite staying power with its use of famous ideals of literature, and this idea that is as old as time that the earth will one day end (or at the very least the sun will dry up – probably not the correct scientific theory language) and we will all be forced to rethink our entire use of civilization.

Jeevan is the most endearing character for this aspect of the novel.  He is the almost-savior of Arthur Leander, pumping his chapped winter hands against the famous man’s chest in an effort to find breath.  It is through this initial death that violence whispers down the novel. And Jeevan is the first: the first to push seven grocery carts through the snow to his brother’s apartment, the first to call his girlfriend to warn her, and the first (for the reader) to know how important a life in someone’s ribs stays, he is my first character of this book.  The one I most long to tell the rest of the story.  He gets misplaced in the middle, but I would like to see what he makes of the flicker of light at the end.  What regrets does that soul sing?

Station Eleven Image @ Liz & Gianna’s Blog

Finally, this book commanders the idea that people aren’t infinite, and even though my students yelled, “EBOLLAAAAAA” like they were singing about a cough drop most days last semester, it still begs the question, what really are we laughing at? Because I tell you, Flu’s are nothing to f*** with.

PS.  I thought this book was “just okay,” because as a ginger, I have no soul.

13 thoughts on “YOLO: “You Oughta Look Out”

  1. The Other Watson says:

    This sounds like a really interesting book! Will have to add that one to the list!
    It is scary as a teacher sometimes when you realise how skewed kids perspectives can be about certain issues, only to then remember that is the commonly held perspective in society about those same issues. Even now I’m dealing more with adults in Sweden, the same thing keeps happening.

    • Cassie says:

      Isn’t it odd? It sometimes feels like a bubble of the population I have to fix and other times I’m like… “No, most people think this.” This book IS interesting. I think you will like it, especially the strange way she weaves all the voices together.

      • The Other Watson says:

        Yeah, definitely. I realised a lot of my students just reflected the attitudes of the greater Australia back over there, and I often did my best to try and make some of them question their own bigotry and closed mindedness in whatever ways I could. Interestingly, here in Sweden they seem more grateful to know English, and indeed have more respect for languages altogether, so that is nice. But the distorted and misled social values are often still there lurking underneath the surface.
        I definitely find myself wanting to read books that are written a little more differently. I need to do it more so I can challenge myself in my own writing more.

      • Cassie says:

        I could not agree with you more on either account. I love that aspect of teaching, being able to play devil’a advocate and teaching them to question and think critically. How do you love Sweden? I love seeing your adventures on Instagram.

      • The Other Watson says:

        Definitely hahaha!
        I am loving Sweden, although typical me had to pick the one town that doesn’t seem to be getting much snow this winter haha (I’m not over the novelty of snow yet….can you tell I’ve spent most of my life in Australia?). But it’s a wonderful part of the world here, everything is so beautiful. I’m glad you like my pictures on Instagram too – it is fun to document it on there. And the more narrative blog posts on my Swedish adventures have been some of my favourite to write this last year too, actually.
        Having said all this, I do feel like I’m already getting itchy feet. I think we’ll spend the next couple of years in Sweden, get married and all that jazz, but I think we’re already considering England or Scotland in a couple of years time. Would be funny to immigrate to a FOURTH country before I’m 30. :P
        BY THE WAY speaking of Instagram I’ve noticed you’re very happy lately? I’m so happy for you, you deserve to be happy and to have someone who makes you feel that way because you yourself are an amazing person! :)

      • Cassie says:

        Ah! Snow! I think snow is lovely and I’ve seen it a lot. It has like a magical or majestic quality or something. For a day or two it heals everything and you can imagine a lot of fun things, but snowed in can be miserable too haha. That double edged sword. Has your girlfriend ever been to Aus with you?! I can’t remember if you told me. You should so do four countries before 30! That sounds brilliant! And then write a book. DO IT!!!!

        Thanks for the kind words! He is amazing! And funny thing is we met in high school on MySpace, it’s weird how the world connects us all isn’t it?!

      • The Other Watson says:

        I guess I haven’t been snowed in yet, maybe that’ll change my mind. So far it’s just all the magic as you say – there is something healing about it, the way it lights up the darkness (gosh it’s so dark in Sweden in winter). Although I still struggle on the ice…I look like Bambi. She hasn’t been to Australia with me but we’re going there in May to see my lil sister get married. Also May is late autumn in Aus so the hellfire temperatures will have stopped…maybe.
        Haha, it is funny the way the world connects us. I would have never believed I would have met my future partner through blogging, and yet…here I am? And Myspace sounds even more impossible, I love that! Funny that you’ve found each other now all these years later. Lovely, actually! :D

      • Cassie says:

        AH! I love Australia in the autumn actually. I thought it was all about summer, but my favorite time was autumn. I definitely want to read your post about how she views Aus – I’m sure she will love it as it’s through your eyes. Wonderful. Congratulations to your little sister!

        It is so odd – I love that you met through blogging. I hope you have a blog inspired wedding, haha. : ) I just think it’s hilarious that we met through myspace in high school and then found each other again on Instagram – the world is a large, but small place. I haven’t ever read your girlfriend’s blog, but would love to – send me a link if she still has it (and if I can read it).

        Are you learning a new language while you’re there?

      • The Other Watson says:

        Yeah, Australia is nice in Autumn. It’s nice in Spring except often the temperature shoots up and lately the bushfires have happened in early Spring (I know a couple of years ago we had 200 bushfires in NSW alone in September…crazy). I think she will love Australia, but I guess time will tell!
        I think our wedding is going to be like forest/celtic sort of inspired? That’s the plan anyway! But I am definitely going to work in how we met into my speech, somehow (good grief…how am I going to not yap on for hours. I’ll need to bring out Editor Matt for that one (who am I kidding, I never follow a script in speeches anyway)).
        I feel old now – myspace didn’t even exist when I was in high school. That was a university thing for me, and Facebook was technically post-university (although I went back so it doesn’t count). But that is an awesome story, I love how much this sort of thing happens! It’s nice to hear good love stories, when the world can be so often filled with bad ones.
        Sadly, I don’t think she does anything with her blog anymore. I don’t think she even does anything with her other blog on Tumblr, either. I guess she used them more for photography or poetry – the poetry I think she just shows me, and the photos she has instagram for (she’s zebralinnea on instagram though if you’re curious). It is interesting to think that I probably struck upon her blog just before she stopped doing it…or maybe she stopped because of me? I have no idea hahaha. But it was all perfect timing, in its own weird way.
        I am “learning” Swedish, yes. Very badly, but I am trying. It’s taken me a year just to get most of the pronunciation right, although I am slowly getting my head around the grammar (it’s more similar to German than English…if only I knew German) and I guess I probably know 500-1000 words? I understand a lot, especially with reading, but I’m not so good at speaking yet. I think I’ll just suddenly get it, though, knowing me. I’m determined to learn it properly before we immigrate anywhere else….

  2. Bea says:

    It sounds like you liked this book and maybe you should share it with Dad. By the way, he is loving, “Girl on a Train”. Thanks for another great review.

  3. the Found Girl says:

    Cassie, I do love your reviews and how you mix a bit of real life into them. I’m on the fence when it comes to Shakespeare so no help there I’m afraid, though I do remember studying him through school and being entirely fed up. I re-read Macbeth for a Lit class a few years ago and, lo and behold! I was fascinated, though only with that particular play. Hats off for making your students think! ;) Btw, how/where/why did this whole “gingers have no souls” thing start?!

    • Cassie says:

      I do LOVE Macbeth. Some of his plays, I adore. Some of them, I want to let die. :) I guess you can’t have some Shakespeare without all of it though, unfortunately. What did you love about Macbeth? I had a college professor that looked like Dr. Pheenee on Boy Meets World (no clue how to spell that) and he literally wrote like crazy notes that took up a whole wall and made no sense and I was just trying to follow. He might have something to do with my loathing, even though he makes good stories.

      I’m not sure how it started, one of my closest friends used to joke with me about it. That would be something I should research though.


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