Monday, August 03, 2015


At the airport yesterday I picked up a book which I loved until just about the end, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. But at the end I didn't love it it so. Why? It's brilliantly written, tender, and so well plotted it's like one of those amazing locks on old safes. But that may be the thing.

The premise of the story is somehow familiar - a new strain of flu wipes out almost all of humanity, shutting down civilization as we know it. Pockets of survivors scrape out an existence in the ruins of motels, gas stations and airports... A group of musicians and actors called the Traveling Symphony travel around with horse-drawn wagons (the shells of pickup trucks), like companies of players in the middle ages, offering Beethoven and Shakespeare. And someone starts a "Museum of Civilization" in a wing of the airport of Severn City displaying iPhones, credit cards, stiletto heels, a snow globe and other relics of the world just lost. Everyone struggles to remember, or forget, or imagine the world that was lost, and Mandel's writing captures these moods and moments with amazing sensitivity and verbal beauty. Here's a bravura bit of her writing:

Clark had always been fond of beautiful obejcts, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful. He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required. Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly-line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyor belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes, crates, shipping containers. Consider the cardgames played belowdecks in the evenings on the ship carrying the containers across the ocean, a hand stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, a haze of blue smoke in dim light, the cadences of a half dozen languages united by common profanities, the sailors' dreams of land and women, these men for whom the ocean was a gray-line horizon to be traversed in ships the size of overturned skyscrapers. Consider the signature on the shipping manifest when the ship reached port, a signature unlike any other on earth, the coffee cup in the hand of the driver delivering boxes to the distribution center, the secret hopes of the UPS man carrying boxes of snow globes to the Severn City Airport. Clark shook the glove and held it up to the light.... (255)

This is a portrait of globalization as beautiful lacework, cinematic in its zeroing in on the work and play of human hands along the way: it's presumably in Clark's hands as he muses. In its tenderness I was reminded of the Dalai Lama's preachments on interconnectedness, though writing it out just now also put me in mind of of the advertisements for multinational corporations sponsoring PBS programs. I was given pause by the overturned skyscrapers, too pretty and powerful an image for her conventional seamen, but then the signature unlike any other on earth took my breath away. As a swooning reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle said, Station Eleven makes us "appreciative of the grace of everyday existence" - the everyday existence of our wonderfully interconnected world.

Here's my problem. The villains of this story are not those who deny the workings of our gaudy world. It's those who don't realize the contingent fragility of it all, that ultimately it's a tissue of accident. These - SPOILER ALERT - congeal in murderous post-catastrophe cults led by people like a man known just as "The Prophet," whose mantra is "everything happens for a reason." We see him as a youth, reading the Book of Revelations to a plane full of corpses:

"'Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her,'" he said to the plane as Clark approached. He paused and looked up. "Do you hear that? Plagues. 'One day her plagues will overtake her. Death, mourning, and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.'" ...
"What were you doing?" [Clark asks]
"I'm reading to the people inside," Tyler said. ... "I just want them to know that it happened for a reason."
"Look, Tyler, some things just happen." ...
"But why did they die instead of us?" the boy asked, with an air of patiently reciting a well-rehearsed argument. His gaze was unblinking.
"Because they were exposed to a certain virus, and we weren't. You can look for reasons, and god knows a few people here have driven themselves half-crazy trying, but Tyler, that's all there is."
"What if we were saved for a different reason?"
"Saved?" Clark was remembering why he didn't talk to Tyler very often.
"Some people were saved. Some people like us."
"What do you mean, 'people like us'?"
"People who were good," Tyler said. "People who weren't weak." (259-60)

This thinking appears first in the book long before the cataclysm, in a remark by a Hollywood beauty at a dinner party for a couple celebrating its wedding anniversary.

"I think how-we-met stories are always exciting," Elizabeth says. ...
"I don't know if exciting is the word I'd use," Heller's wife says. "But there's certainly a sweetness about them, about those stories I mean."
"No, it's just, if everything happens for a reason," Elizabeth persists, "as personally, I believe that it does, then when I hear a story of how two people came together, it's like a piece of the plan is being revealed."
In the silence that follows this pronouncement, a caterer refills Miranda's wine. (96)

I'm not ashamed to say I marked this page because I kind of liked what Elizabeth said ... but it's not long before we learn that Elizabeth has in fact been having an affair with the husband of the anniversary couple! And yes, there is a line connecting her to the Prophet, though I'll let you read the book to find out what it is.

I don't want to get into a discussion of theodicy and its critics, and I certainly don't want to defend the Prophet's views against those animating Mandel. What bothers me is that Mandel is such a good and confident writer, so deft and clever in her plotting, that in the world of Station Eleven everything does happen for a reason. (Clark shows Tyler for weak just a few pages after seeing the world in a snowglobe.) The characters we sympathize with don't know they're connected by a skein of contingencies as wide and hard to see as the web producing the snowglobe, but we readers do, thrilling in Mandel's ability to weave so intricate a web. It is not a moral causality, exactly, but there's a moralizing in it somehow too.

This feels a little unfair as a criticism. Am I saying the book is too well written? Or am I making the even more ordinary objection that omnipotent narrators compete with God? It may not be a fault of Mandel at all. It's Voltaire's problem in Candide: the story's success as story undermines its effort to describe a world so cruelly meaningless it renders our story-telling idle.

I recall the wonderful A. S. Byatt once saying that the single most difficult thing for a writer to do is to describe a truly accidental death. 

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