Warning: this post contains spoilers!
On a recent holiday I decided to switch up my reading and go outside my nature writing, non-fiction comfort zone. At the time I was doing an internship with a publisher, so I had access to lots of free galleys (the bound uncorrected proofs that are sent as advanced copies to reviewers). I decided to read two of their new and forthcoming titles: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher. In between those two books I also read Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (it was a very reading intensive trip!).
Although I struggle with contemporary fiction – it’s all just made up and you don’t learn anything and it feels less productive (older fiction doesn’t give me this feeling because I’m reading “the classics” and therefore ticking something off my to do list) – I was glad I pushed myself to read something different. My husband had already read Station Eleven and he also read A Boy and His Dog during the holiday, so it was fun to be able to compare notes for once. Despite marrying a reader, there is very little overlap between out reading. My husband generally doesn’t like nonfiction (unless it’s about boardgames) and though he has made several attempts to read books I like, he’s usually given up after a few chapters (and the same is true going the other way, I only made it a page into Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson).
Of the books I read on that trip Station Eleven was definitely my favourite (although I really enjoyed the rainy day by the fire side, in a cabin in the woods, reading the haunting Ghost Wall). It’s the kind of book that’s so well written, it makes you despair of ever being able to write anything worth reading. The book is ostensibly about a virus that wipes out the majority of the world’s popular. It follows the lives of several interconnected characters both before, during, and, for those who survive, after the virus. There’s Jeevan, who witnesses the on-stage, but very real death of Arthur Leander, and Kirsten, who is a child actor in the play. We also meet Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, and the writer and artist behind the book’s eponymous graphic novel.
These story lines are all compelling, you want to find out what happens to the characters, and there is also some tension in the form of a character called the prophet. But what I loved most about this book was its exploration of the value of creativity. Many of the major characters are engaged in one form of creativity or another, and all approach it in different ways.
Arthur Leander grew up on an island in the Canadian Pacific Northwest, called Delano Island, but moves to Toronto to attend university. He soon drops out and starts going to acting auditions and then to theatre school in New York City. He lands a role on Law & Order and ends up moving out to L.A., where his career (and partying) gathers momentum. He can no longer go out in public without being followed by photographers. He dates famous women.
Arthur is thirty-six now… He is becoming extremely, unpleasantly famous. He wasn’t expecting fame, although he secretly longed for it in his twenties just like everyone else, and now that he has it he’s not sure what to do with it.
He first meets Miranda at the behest of his mother. Miranda spent some time living with her aunt on Delano Island before moving to Toronto to study art. Miranda leaves her boyfriend and her job in Toronto. She marries Arthur. They move into a nice house in the Hollywood Hills and are followed everywhere by photographers. Arthur’s run of success continues and his face is now appearing on billboards across the country.
Three years into their marriage it is clear that their relationship is in trouble. Two more marriages and two more divorces follow for Arthur, as well as a child who lives with his mother in Israel. At the start of the book he is in his fifties and starring in the lead role in a production of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto.
Jeevan is in the audience on the night Arthur collapses on stage. Jeevan is training to be a medic after a varied career doing bar-tending and working as a paparazzo. When Arthur stumbles, Jeevan rushes on to the stage to try to resuscitate him. Later on, after the ambulance has arrived and Jeevan is no longer needed, he finds himself looking after Kirsten, who is playing one of King Lear’s daughters. Kirsten asks if Arthur is going to be okay and Jeevan tries to reassure her without lying:
“Just now,” Jeevan said, “he was doing the thing he loved best in the world.” He was basing this on an interview he’d read a month ago, Arthur talking to The Globe and Mail—“I’ve waited all my life to be old enough to play Lear, and there’s nothing I love more than being on stage, the immediacy of it…”—but the words seemed hollow in retrospect. Arthur was primarily a film actor, and who in Hollywood longs to be older?
Jeevan suspects that Arthur is being insincere, but it’s hard to tell. Mandel leaves it up to the reader to decide. We never really get inside Arthur’s head and he seems to have burnt so many bridges that the people in his life, his wives and friends, don’t necessarily hold him in high esteem. When Arthur meets up with his old friend, Clark, at a restaurant in London, Clark has the distinct feeling that Arthur is performing, just delivering lines. After years of acting and fame, it’s as though it is hard for Arthur to switch off the Hollywood persona.
Kirsten doesn’t have the luxury of pursuing a Hollywood career. On the night of Arthur’s death, the virus that will eventually wipe out 90% of the earth’s population has already reached Toronto. Instead, after surviving the virus, she eventually joins up with The Travelling Symphony, a roving band of musicians and actors, who perform music and Shakespeare for the towns they pass through. At the beginning of the book The Travelling Symphony is heading for St. Deborah by the Water. The evening they arrive, they perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
What is lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still so much beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheekbone half-erased by candlelight.
“Then I must be thy lady.” Lines of a play written in 1594, the year London’s theatres reopened after two seasons of plague. Or written possibly a year later, in 1595, a year before the death of Shakespeare’s only son. Some centuries later on a distant continent, Kirsten moved across the stage in a cloud of painted fabric, half in rage, half in love.
Despite all the loss and hardship she has endured, through Shakespeare – a man who lived a long time ago, in a different country, but whose world in many ways resembled Kirsten’s, a world haunted by disease, a world without electricity – Kirsten is able to find beauty and meaning. The tagline of The Travelling Symphony is: because survival is insufficient. The world as we know it may have collapsed, she will never be famous, never see her face splashed across a billboard, but through Shakespeare Kirsten finds comfort, meaning, and beauty.
After art school Miranda and her artist boyfriend, Pablo, are living together in Toronto. She supports them with a job as an administrative assistant to the executive of a shipping company called Neptune Logistics. The executive is often away and Miranda is left with long hours in her day to work on sketches for her Station Eleven project. Miranda’s boyfriend views her job as something temporary to tide them over until he sells more paintings:
“My poor corporate baby,” he said. “Lost in the machine.” Pablo talks about metaphorical machines a lot, also the Man. He sometimes combines the two, as in “That’s how the Man wants us, just trapped right there in the corporate machine.”
Pablo is a stereotype of the starving artist, raging against the system. But he serves as a foil for Miranda, who doesn’t share his sentiments:
What she can never tell Pablo, because he disdains all things corporate, is that she likes being at Neptune Logistics more than she likes being at home. Home is a small dark apartment with an ever-growing population of dust bunnies, the hallway narrowed by Pablo’s canvasses propped up against the walls, an easel blocking the lower half of the living room window. Her workspace at Neptune is all clean lines and recessed lighting […] In art school they talked about day jobs in tones of horror. She never would have imagined that her day job would be the calmest and least cluttered part of her life.
Miranda isn’t an artist who believes in starving in a garret. For Miranda it is okay to be an artist and long for nice things. She wants clean lines and lake front views, she wants clothes that don’t look cheap.
Her approach to her work is also very different to Pablo’s. Pablo longs to sell his work and exhibits it at shows, but Miranda is content just to be doing the work. Years after leaving Pablo, Miranda is at a dinner party at the Hollywood home she ostensibly shares with Arthur. The party is supposed to mark her and Arthur’s third wedding anniversary and to celebrate the opening weekend sales for Arthur’s latest film. Miranda feels awkward and out of place surrounded by Arthur’s film industry colleagues, and her husband feels distant. A guest called Tesch tries to strike up a conversation with Miranda and asks her how her work is going.
“What do you plan to do with it once it’s done?” Tesch asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Surely you’ll try to publish it?”
“It’s the work itself that’s important to me.” Miranda is aware of how pretentious this sounds, but is it still pretentious if it’s true? “Not whether I publish it or not.”
“I think that’s so great,” Elizabeth says. “It’s like, the point is that it exists in the world, right?”
“What’s the point of doing all that work,” Tesch asks, “if no one sees it?”
“It makes me happy. It’s peaceful, spending hours working on it. It doesn’t really matter to me if anyone else sees it.”
That night her marriage to Arthur effectively ends and Miranda finds herself moving back to Toronto to take up her old role with Neptune Logistics. She does eventually self-publish the first two issues of Station Eleven. When the deadly virus strikes she is on an assignment in Malaysia. She dies there alone, lying on a chaise lounge by the beach, looking out at the sunrise. It reminds her of the fictional world she created:
A wash of violent colour, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and the water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo seas. The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.
Following his unsuccessful attempt to revive Arthur on stage, Jeevan wanders the streets of a snowy Toronto. He had been at the theatre with his girlfriend, but she has left him there, and it’s clear that their relationship is over. He decides to head over to his brother’s apartment and as he’s walking there he receives a phone call from his friend Hua, who works as a doctor at Toronto General. Hua is calling to warn him that the Georgia Flu has reached Toronto and that it is spreading and killing people at an alarming rate. He tells Jeevan to get out of the city as soon as possible.
But Jeevan doesn’t want to leave his brother, Frank, who is wheelchair bound after being shot while reporting in a war zone. Instead, he stocks up on supplies at a local supermarket and holes himself up with his brother. Frank is ghostwriting a memoir for a philanthropist and even though the world is clearly ending and the philanthropist is probably dead at this point, he continues to work on the project. For Frank, the writing project seems to be a way of passing the time and hiding from what is happening outside the apartment. Yet, when Jeevan asks Frank to read a passage of the memoir for him, it’s clear that Frank is also using the memoir as a way of processing his own thoughts and emotions:
I’ve been thinking lately about immortality. What it means to be remembered, what I want to be remembered for, certain questions concerning memory and fame. I love watching old movies. I watch the faces of long-dead actors on the screen, and I think about how they’ll never truly die. […] First we want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.
The passage from Frank’s book also speaks to the different approaches that the characters take to their creative practice – whether it’s acting, drawing, or writing. Arthur Leander ends up chasing fame, but ultimately it doesn’t amount to much in a world without electricity, televisions, billboards, and Hollywood. Kirsten and Miranda, on the other hand, don’t seek fame, and their art seems to bring them greater comfort. What’s more, Miranda’s graphic novels find their way into the hands of the young Kirsten, who takes a liking to Arthur while they are performing in King Lear. Though she was never bothered about fame or sharing her work with the world, Miranda’s graphic novels – physical books, printed on paper – outlast the end of the world.