If you’ve read World Made By Hand, you get the feeling that James Howard Kunstler is smugly waiting for the apocalypse in his bunker just so he can say “I told you so.” Of course, this is also true in almost any other end-of-the-world fantasy, from Dawn of the Dead and its warning of rampant consumerism to Justin Cronin’s The Passage and its parable of military experiments with vampires.
In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel manages to avoid that trap entirely. Her novel is divided between post- and pre-apocalypse scenes, each populated by fully realized characters shot through with wistful desires for what it cannot have. A paparazzo wishes for more meaningful work. A successful actor realizes he has been horrible to all three of his wives, and it has in fact been his fault. A woman struggles to remember if both light and coldness came from refrigerators in the world before. A survivor picks through an abandoned library in search of celebrity gossip magazines and Justin Cronin novels.
In Mandel’s world, a particularly virulent flu comes from nowhere to wipe out most of humanity. The survivors cobble together what they can – a museum in a former airport. A newspaper published monthly and disseminated by horse-drawn cart. A traveling orchestra and theater troupe. A cult.
And the villans, if villains there be in this tale, are those who seek to put a moral on the disaster. Who leads the violent cult? A man whose mama always told him “things happen for a reason.”
No they don’t. Nature doesn’t care about you. Only humans care.
Mandel has a masterful novel here. Not just in its narrative structure, or in its language – although it is beautifully built and beautifully told. But it is also a masterpiece in the way it illuminates the flaws of the current world and the folly of our wishing for apocalypse and the simplification it might bring.