It begins with an ending. On a snowy night in Toronto, King Lear literally dies on stage when lead actor Arthur Leander is felled by a heart attack. A paramedic trainee springs from the audience to try and revive him. A child actress who witnessed Leander’s collapse is escorted from the stage. Later, fellow members of the cast and crew gather together to toast the actor. “Of all of them there in the bar that night, the bartender survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
In Emily St. John Mandel’s remarkable fourth novel, Station Eleven (Knopf Doubleday, digital gallery), a fast-moving flu pandemic wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population, along with all borders, cities, countries, and pretty much civilization as we know it. But the novel doesn’t linger long on the horrific end times as it gracefully loops post and pre-apocalypse, linking Leander’s life as a Hollywood actor to a handful of survivors and talismans. Station Eleven thus becomes a moving mystery of memory and connections lost and found.
Twenty years into this new dark age, survivors can be found in small settlements, living off the land and scavenging useful remains — clothes, canned goods, soap — from long-abandoned houses. Kirsten Raymonde, the little girl who witnessed Leander’s death, is an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a theatrical and musical troupe that travels by horse-drawn wagon from one community to the next. It performs Beethoven and Shakespeare because “people want what was best about the world.” Also, as its motto states: “Survival is insufficient,” a line not from Shakespeare but an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Kirsten has the words tattooed on her wrist, along with two black knives, and she carries worn copies of the graphic novel “Station Eleven,” that Leander gave her long ago. The meaning of the knives is one of the small mysteries that will be revealed as the troupe moves through an increasingly hostile landscape around Lake Michigan, where a strange Prophet now holds sway. As for the comic books, we learn in a flashback that they were created by Miranda, the first of Leander’s three wives, and they take on a greater significance as Mandel deftly spins her elegiac story, intertwining her characters’ fates.
One thread follows Javeen, the paramedic who tried to save Leander, and who then took grocery carts of supplies to his disabled brother’s high-rise. Another belongs to the actor’s best friend from college days, who ends up stranded in a Michigan airport and becomes curator of the Museum of Civilization — an ever-growing collection of survivors’ useless belongings from cell phones and laptops to credit cards and high heels. When Kirsten and a companion become separated from the Traveling Symphony, they head for the previously agreed-upon meeting point — the airport. Out on the tarmac, abandoned planes have been turned into shelters except for the last plane to land, which sits apart. It chose to lock its doors in a self-imposed quarantine, dooming its passengers so others might live. Perhaps those survivors — or their children — will live long enough for the world to remake itself, for the lights to come back on.