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From Our Bookshelves: 'Station Eleven'

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There was something almost eerie about rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel “Station Eleven” in 2021. The novel follows a societal collapse after a deadly virus sweeps the world. It’s not just the almost prophetic nature of the novel that I found haunting, but St. John Mandel’s prose itself, which is full of lines that rattled around in my head for weeks. One of these lines comes towards the end of the book when an actress in the traveling Shakespeare troupe the story centers around, recounts a conversation from the early years of the pandemic when she was still a kid. She remembers the friend telling her that Shakespeare was defined by the plague, then asking her if she knows what it means to be “defined by something.” In the present-day Kirsten responds to this years-old question, quoting the book of Revelation — “Yes. There was a new heaven and a new earth.”

I originally finished reading “Station Eleven” the second week of March of 2019, which stands out to me as a marker — the first day of my last year “before,” inaugurated through fiction. I remember being really touched by the novel, even crying at parts, which seems strange in retrospect — that this book would have such resonance with me even before my life began to mirror its events. While this novel isn’t entirely similar to our real-world pandemic, notes about the changing nature of normalcy that are apparent in “Station Eleven” will ring true for anyone living in the drastically changing present world.

Part of what struck me then was how the novel depicted the process of moving on from something. The first time I read the book, I was a senior in high school, about to graduate and leave the boarding school I had called home for the past four years. I was desperate for something new, and simultaneously in shock that this chapter of my life was ending, that my known world was closing around me. I felt excitement, certainly, but also loss and fear. In March of 2019, as I read, I underlined a character’s pre-pandemic description of his childhood home, “It was gorgeous and claustrophobic. I loved it and I always wanted to escape.”

In A March 2020 INTERVIEW, Emily St. John Mandel described how she had been inspired to write “Station Eleven” by her “terrible awareness of the fragility of civilization.” “All of this,” she continued, “ we take for granted. It’s unsettling to realize how quickly this falls apart.”

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“Station Eleven” received a lot of attention last spring, as, in the light of uncertainty, people turned to fiction for answers. Having reread this book since the pandemic started, I’m not sure “Station Eleven” is all that good of an allegory for our current times. While there certainly are parallels between the spread of the fictional “Georgia Flu” and Covid-19, the similarities end there. As devastating as Covid-19 has been, the novel’s post-apocalyptic landscape and decimated societies are far worse than anything we have experienced.

Moreover, “Station Eleven” is not really about the virus, as much as it is about the loss and change. About half of the novel is situated before the collapse of society, following the beginnings and ends of marriages, careers, and friendships. These stories are told throughout the novel, interspersed within the narrative of the acting troupe’s journey through their post-apocalyptic society. The effect of this shift is not to diminish the seriousness of the character’s pre-pandemic problems but to show more precisely how strange and fragile every facet of our lives are, from the macro to the minuscule.

In the novel, loss itself is not a beautiful thing, but the recognition that life can fall apart is the key to understanding its worth. “What was lost in the collapse,” the book asks, “almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”

When I first read “Station Eleven,” I had just begun to gain that “terrible awareness of fragility” that St. John Mandel describes. Now, I feel it more acutely. Despite what I say when friends and I pretend to be public health experts, announcing our plans for “when Covid is over,” it has slowly dawned on me over the last few months that there is no certainty about when and even if things will return to the way they were, and as the pandemic stretches on, normalcy feels farther and farther out of reach.

Often, when looking at old photos on my phone, I find myself touched by the casual joy that they embody. How special what was once ordinary is to me now! Hugging a friend, eating out, spending holidays with family — how rare and beautiful this old world seems.

Rereading “Station Eleven” I return to this question — Do I understand what it means to live a life defined by the plague? Yes. There is a new heaven and a new earth.

From Our Bookshelves is a new personal essays series written by Crimson Staff Writers about our favorite books, books that mean a lot to us, or otherwise books that we think need to be discussed right now.

— Staff writer Mira S. Alpers can be reached at mira.alpers@thecrimson.com.

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