It was fascinating reading St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven after Sarah Moss’s The Fell, to compare a writer with much talent, little purpose, and lack of control over her material with one of equal talent, clear purpose, and control of her material.
If you’re not familiar with Station Eleven, its plot is one great big jumble of narrative threads with a large cast of characters. I think the GR blurb does the best job of describing it:
Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lake region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
This makes it sound way better than it actually was. I’m not sure they’re “risking everything for art and humanity,” or surviving the way travelling players did in the late middle ages (not sure about the history there), grubby, as much sacrificing for art as eking out a living. As for “suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding,” I’ll give Mandel this: she sure can write and kept my interest for the most part. As the novel went on and I couldn’t see the point of it, her conceit did wear.
It wasn’t a coincidence that I thought this way about Mandel’s novel given I’d read Moss’s Fell, a more profound, more realistic, more controlled idea about what a pandemic entails. Maybe I’m not being fair, because Mandel wrote speculative fiction and Moss, realistic: Mandel’s pandemic was a means to end, the catalyst that destroyed the world as we know it and what she imagines would follow. Unfortunately, her narrative threads, compelling as I found them at times, never came together to have something to say. Well, maybe she did: people are shite, life is beautiful, don’t trust religion, maybe there’s hope, but it’s vague. When I came to the end of Station Eleven, I thought the whole was less than its parts: maybe Mandel was trying to say something about time and fate?, but for the most part, I thought she loved her tales like a child playing with his blocks, putting them together, knocking them over, and putting them together again…but never quite building something of permanence and purpose. Her writing was clear and crisp; her ideas, muddy. I hope Mandel grows into her talent.