Monday, May 11, 2015
Once again, there is no single protagonist. It is in large part a story of Arthur Leander, a famous film actor who dies in the opening pages as he performs in a stage production of King Lear. A child actress in the play, Kirsten Raymonde, who briefly interacts with Arthur, is the focus of the post-apocalyptic scenes, which mostly take place 20 years after Leander's death.
That ill-fated performance comes literally on the eve of a flu pandemic that kills off most of the earth's human population in a period of just weeks and brings an end to civilization as we know it. Raymonde, as a young adult, becomes part of a group of musicians and actors, The Traveling Symphony, which circulates through the sparsely populated towns around the Great Lakes, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to appreciative audiences deprived of most other forms of entertainment.
The back story of Leander, his three wives, his friend Clark and his son, Tyler, occupies a good half of the novel. These stories before and after the catastrophe are linked by characters running into each other -- the coincidences are highly improbable, but not impossible, so the author is forgiven -- and by a couple of McGuffins, especially a hand-printed graphic novel about a space station and its commander, Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven.
Kirsten is in possession of one of the few copies of the graphic novel, which was produced by Leaner's first wife, Miranda, a would-be artist who went on after her divorce to become a successful shipping executive. Station Eleven, the size of small planet, is largely covered with water, an Undersea which harbors a population of renegades who oppose Dr. Eleven and want to return to earth.
Through this fanciful, imaginative tapestry, Mandel weaves basic human emotions of love and affection, loss and regret, timidity and courage, with a force that is compelling -- I read the book in just four days -- and often moving.
J.K. Rowling once said that Harry Potter and his fellow students don't have computers and cell phones because they have magic playing the role these miraculous devices have in our lives. The magic things of civilization -- air travel, electricity, even books -- come in for their share of wonder in this novel. But the rediscovery of simple pleasures -- bread baking in the oven, catching fish in a stream, performing a play -- also become a source of happiness and fulfillment.
Ultimately, for all the devastation and deprivation in this post-apocalyptic world, the resilience of the human spirit and endurance of human emotion create an atmosphere of optimism, which survives deadly threats and unavoidable setbacks.