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