At world’s end, again: Station Eleven doesn’t breathe new life into the apocalypse

This post-apocalyptic novel is poetic and poignant – but also rather pointless in the final analysis.

Derelict motels serve as community centres after civilisation’s collapse in Emily St John Mandel's novel. iStockphoto
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Having watched both World War Z (passably chilling) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (mind-numbingly predictable) in the days before I picked up Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven [;], the prospect of yet another post-pandemic narrative left me with certain expectations. This didn't simply have to be better; I wanted something that set itself apart from the pack. To begin with, I thought I'd struck gold, but as I read on, I found myself less and less convinced.

Mandel's story begins in the middle of a performance of King Lear at a theatre in Toronto. The lead, Arthur Leander – a Canadian whose years in Hollywood have led to fame and fortune, not to mention a bevy of ex-wives and divorce scandals – collapses from a heart attack mid-scene and is dead before he hits the boards. Meanwhile, the city's ER departments are seeing their first cases of a virulent strain of influenza, carried by passengers on planes from Russia, the virus originating in neighbouring Georgia. With an incubation period of a matter of hours, and a mortality rate of 99 per cent, the end of the world as we know it is already under way.

Fast-forward 20 years and a company of Shakespearean actors and an orchestra collectively known as The Travelling Symphony wander the Great Lakes bringing entertainment to the “archipelago of small towns” that is civilisation in Year Twenty: groups of survivors “clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels”, fending off ferals and religious fanatics, living without electricity or medicine. Henceforth the story flits back and forth between the pre- and post-collapse worlds, a chronology of events slowly taking shape like “the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together”.

Just as Lear is a play that concerns itself with the idea of legacy, it's Leander himself, and the moment of his death, that becomes the focal point around which the characters' lives henceforth play out in relation to him and each other. There is, of course, something of Shakespeare's king's fractured and lawless kingdom in Mandel's post-collapse world, but look for further resonances between the two stories and you'll be ­disappointed.

The most notable parallel is actually that between the imaginary “Undersea” of the Station Eleven comic strip, a world of trapped people waiting in limbo for rescue. This strip was the pet project of Arthur’s first wife Miranda, and two copies of it survive the collapse. The strip comes to take on totemic significance to Kirsten, a young actress with the Symphony who’s obsessed with Leander since starring with him as a child in that fateful Toronto ­performance.

On the night he dies, Arthur’s girlfriend comes across a copy of the comic recently gifted him by Miranda. “I never really understood the point of it,” he admits. “I like it,” she replies. “The art’s really good, isn’t it?” And, as if to agree, “She liked drawing more than she liked writing the dialogue,” he ­explains.

One might equally sum up Mandel's novel thus. Her world is visually stunning – fully realised, whether it's the details of the dust that hovers above the recently disturbed husk of a child's body long ago tucked into its bed, or the claustrophobia of a gilded Hollywood Hills existence – and she has a wonderful way with words – the description, for example, of the promise of danger lurking in a false prophet's speech, the "suggestion of a trapdoor waiting under every word" – and in many ways the novel is a timely reminder of our mortality, what with the Ebola outbreak, not to mention the impending annual flu season, but strip the somewhat cluttered plot away and, like Leander, I can't help but wonder what the point of it all is. As much as I enjoyed the writing, when I tried to work out what Station Eleven was doing differently, I came up empty-handed.

Interviewed in The New York Times, Mandel explained that she wanted to "write a love letter to the modern world", but her lists of things lost – the "splendours of the former world, the space shuttles and the electrical grid and the amplified guitars" – or those now without practical use – mobile phones, iPads, laptops, stilettos, car engines, passports – rather than inspiring me to see the glories of the world around me anew, instead left me pondering the futility of it all. Maybe I've just got dystopian fiction fatigue, but from a genre that can stop you in your tracks when executed well, I want more than a gentle, though admittedly poetic, reminder to gather my rosebuds.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.