Friday, November 28, 2014

Audiobook Review: Station Eleven

Listened 10/28/14 - 11/10/14
3 Stars - Recommended to readers who enjoy apocalyptic fiction that focuses less on the apocalyptic and more on the relationships of those who are surviving it
Audio 10.7 hours
Publisher: Random House
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Released: September 2014

I was talking to a girl at work the other day, when I was about halfway through the audio, about the freakish timing of this book's release. Emily St. John Mandel's entire novel hitches on the Georgia Flu pandemic, which nearly wipes humanity clean out - spreading around the globe at break neck speed, claiming its victims within days of exposure. And here we are, in the midst of the Ebola breakout... wondering and worrying over its potential to do a similar thing.

Chilling, to be reading a work of fiction that so closely mirrors our current reality. Because as you slip into the pages of Station Eleven, it practically begs you to question "would I survive the pandemic?" And if I did, which is a big fat if, "would I be able to survive in the aftermath?" And to that I'd have to say Oh. Hell. No. As much as I'd like to THINK I'm a survivor, I have to be honest here. I know nothing about scavenging for food, making a fire from nothing, living off the land. Unless I lucked out and hooked up with a group of people who kinda knew what they were doing. Then I might be ok. But otherwise, I'm as good as dead.

But hang on. Here I am, taking about the pandemic as if it's the entirety of the book when in actuality, it's treated more like a back story, since Station Eleven is much more concerned with Arthur, an aging Hollywood actor who died of a heart attack on stage while performing King Lear on the same evening that the Georgia Flu begins taking lives, and the way he is still remembered and connected to (and connecting) survivors 20 years later. Because when the human race is facing complete extinction, it totally makes sense that a handful of people will survive who all knew the same dude way back when... AND end up in the same place together, right? We're talking only 1% of the WORLD'S POPULATION exists now five of the non-infected knew Arthur in the time before are about to start hanging out. Really? Really?!

Kirsten, a child actor, was on stage with him when he died. She stood by and watched as an audience member attempted CPR on him. Fast forward 20 years later, and she is now part of a Traveling Symphony who roam town to town playing classical music and -oh yes- putting on renditions of King Lear. She also carries copies of two limited edition comic books that were written and designed by Arthur's first wife pre-collapse. The CPR guy, Jeevan, also survives the collapse, and remembers those few anxious moments trying to save Arthur under the bright stage lights. Though no one knows who he is, Kirsten often thinks about Jeevan and how he attempted to calm her during the whole  Arthur-dying ordeal. Then we have Arthur's closest friend Clark, who was traveling to Arthur's funeral with Arthur's second wife Elizabeth and their only son. Arthur, Elizabeth, and the kid end up stranded at an airport during the outbreak and manage to survive, along with other lucky/unlucky airport-goers.

Told in chapters that rush back and forth between the early days of the Georgia Flu and the collapse to the here and now, Station Eleven puts a special emphasis on the importance of art and culture, and the role it plays in keeping the last vestiges of civilization... well, civilized. As I read, I found parallels to other post-apocalyptic novels - in the sense that people must make a conscious choice to remain human. Otherwise, they're bound to become monsters, letting their animal instincts take control. That's the power behind the post-apoc novel, isn't it? That tender balance between managing your humanity and totally forsaking it in the face of survival. Mandel's focus seemed to be placed more so on the THINGS of civilization and how they influenced her characters to remain human, rather than delve deeper into the internal struggle. But even that plot point was mashed in and sometimes completely sideswiped by Arthur's story and the ultimate climax to the story lines of those who were impacted by him.

I suppose when I first asked to review this book, I had been under the impression it would've concentrated more on the actual collapse of society, and was rather disappointed to find that it had chosen to center itself on this jaded, womanizing actor and the influence he still yielded over people when, frankly, influence no longer seemed to matter. I began to grow tired of the chapters that shared his history, and much preferred to be in the post collapse world Mandel was developing.

As I have in the past with big-press books that garnered impressive pre-release buzz, I sit here and wonder if I read the same thing as everyone else. Don't get me wrong. I would definitely recommend this to readers who want a slow paced, multi-charactered death-by-pandemic novel in which almost nothing seems to happen. But calling it the best book of 2014? I'm not seeing it. If you want a kick-ass book about the collapse of civilization, I'd highly recommend Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men, which I called out as the best book of 2014 when I first read it back in January, and which still hold the title, in my opinion!

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