A Singular Thought on a Garbled Novel…Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN

Station_ElevenIt 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.

Personal copy.

18 thoughts on “A Singular Thought on a Garbled Novel…Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN

  1. I liked Station Eleven more than you did but I felt fairly similarly about The Glass Hotel: it was really readable and had plenty of interesting elements but I couldn’t really see what they added up to. I do often wonder, in such cases, if I’m just missing something, but it also seems plausible that she’s not quite integrating her ideas and her writing as well as Moss always (I think) manages to.

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    1. You’re too humble!!! You’re a subtle, perceptive reader and go with “it’s not me, it’s you” to the writer! 😉

      I agree, though, there’s clearly talent there and growth is possible. Let’s see how we respond to Sea of Tranquility: I think it’s out this month?

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  2. I, too, had a similar response to Station Eleven. It took me several tries to get into it, and eventually I just browsed through it to see if it improved for me. It did not, and for the very reasons you describe. Some good bits but no coherence. I don’t watch much television, but I wonder if you or any of your followers watched the HBO series version of Station Eleven.

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    1. Yes, it was definitely its parts over its whole. I kind of liked ole womanizing Arthur in a he’s a cad kind of way. But one thread that totally threw it for me was how his “best friend”, Victoria, sold their letters: what was THAT about? Too much material, no coherence. I also never got the point of Station Eleven, or the plausibility of Miranda writing/drawing this comic and running shipping companies…

      I don’t have a television set and don’t subscribe to any streaming!!! I’m an utter bookish Luddite, except for this blog!

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  3. I believe one’s enjoyment of this book depends a lot on the reader’s circumstances when they read it. I read it in late March 2020–right when we all were in early lockdown due to a pandemic. I loved it! It was the right book at the right time for me. On the other hand, you read it after experiencing a book that blew you away. Naturally, any book would have paled by comparison. You were able to see flaws in the author’s story-telling that I barely noticed.
    However, my past enjoyment of Station Eleven did not carry over to either Glass Hotel or this year’s Sea of Tranquility. Neither book held my interest; I DNF’d them both. Now I am reluctant to re-read Station Eleven for fear that the ‘suck fairy’ will have paid a visit to it!

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    1. Oh gosh, yes, that’s very true, Station Eleven would have been a way better read for me if I’d not read it after Moss’s The Fell. Ugh, sad to hear about Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility, which I had hoped would be an improvement. Too much lauding too early maybe for Mandel??? Hmmm, I’d love to hear what you’d think of it on reread…or read Moss’s The Fell?

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      1. I may give Sea of Tranquility another try. My turn at a library copy came while I was Not in the Mood and I had to turn it in before my mood had a chance to change.
        I have the Moss book in hand, but have not had a chance to start it.

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  4. I haven’t read the book but I watched the TV series. It was a rough start because of the out of time sequence way they showed scenes; took halfway through for it to start to come together. My partner stopped watching but I stuck with it because I like to put together puzzles, but I just barely hung in there.
    I did like how it showed an almost different shade of post apocalyptic, more of a focus on the people that try to maintain life instead of devolving into war cannibalistic gangs, that’s still there a bit. All in all though, I felt the way about it that you did the book, it’s whole was less than it’s parts.

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  5. I love the idea of a post-apocalyptic troupe of traveling performers — takes me back to grad school and researching traveling players in medieval England, who were sometimes paid by towns not to perform, since their performances were disruptive to the normal flow of commerce. But I’m not sure I love the idea enough to read a book that didn’t gel for you. I probably would have enjoyed it about two years ago, when pandemic fantasy was still appealing. Now I don’t think I could handle it; I’m too angry and jaded.

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    1. See, the thing about it is that if it were *only* about the troupe, it would have been a better book. This baby is a macedoine of many many vegetables: she’s even squeezed in a graphic novel. I was chatting with a colleague today and we came to the conclusion that CanLit so very much wants to be absurb above all else, but it also wants to be earnest and the two, sadly, end up in messes like this.

      I’m utterly intrigued by the pandemic and what it has wrought, but I don’t think you’d like it. Its mood is not angry, but it’s trying so very hard to assert the *life is beautiful* vibe, I couldn’t buy it. In any case, it’s too bad b/c she sure can write. Hopefully, she might mature as a writer. We’ll see! (It’s nice to hear from you!! 🙂 )

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  6. I haven\t read Moss, so I can’t compare. I enjoyed Station Eleven when I first read it, but I wonder how it would hold up on a reread. Will be thinking of this review when I read Sea of Tranquillity!

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    1. I agree! I have Sea of Tranquility in the TBR and will be looking to see if any of these “issues” improved. I think, maybe, not sure, it may have more to do with an overall trend: I’m reading Perry’s The Essex Serpent and having some the same thoughts, though it’s a much tighter book, thank goodness!

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