Revisiting ‘Station Eleven’ As Art Imitates Life

Photo by the author

As news of Covid-19 heightened over the past couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a book I read a few years ago: Station Eleven. This novel, by Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, takes place 20 years after a global pandemic has wiped out 99% of the population. The novel follows multiple perspectives and alternates between the present and the pre-pandemic era, but the primary focus is a travelling symphony that performs music and Shakespeare plays across this desolate land. In light of recent events, I decided to revisit the book to see how my reading experience would change. The first time around, I deeply enjoyed it. This time around, the enjoyment was still present, and I flew through it, but there was a lot more reflection that could only have come from reading a post-apocalyptic novel while sitting on my couch back home on a Thursday afternoon, when I should have been in Montreal sitting in my German Literature class but wasn’t because school is closed indefinitely due to a global pandemic.

It is a strange thing to reread a story that I had once regarded as improbable, but now, can’t help but draw parallels to given what is currently going on around me. The events in Station Eleven are much more drastic and dire than what is happening with Covid-19, as Mandel doesn’t depict a gradual build-up, just immediate doom. The book is set in a world where almost everyone has died and only the strongest remain. This may not be the most conventional comfort read, but it did bring me a certain amount of comfort. The characters have no electricity and no internet, and all of the luxuries we take for granted are gone. There is power in realizing that things could be a lot worse, and rereading Station Eleven really helped to put things into perspective. It’s so easy to focus on all the things we don’t have now, or on all the things we are unable to do. But taking a step back and looking at all the things we do have can help to make everything feel a little better.

There is power in realizing that things could be a lot worse, and rereading Station Eleven really helped to put things into perspective.

What makes Station Eleven stand apart from other books of its kind is its discussion of the importance of art. All of society’s conventions have crumbled, and yet art persists. Written on the caravan that the Travelling Symphony uses, and tattooed on the arm of one of the main characters is a quote from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” I love the idea that this group of people would reject a sedentary life in favour of bringing a little bit of happiness to those around them. Because when you have nothing, an hour of music or Romeo & Juliet can mean everything.

Another way the power of art is depicted is through a graphic novel called Station Eleven, from which Mandel’s book takes its name. This graphic novel, written as a pet project by someone who dies right at the beginning of the pandemic, lands into the hands of one of the members of the Travelling Symphony who is enraptured by it and determined to find out more. It is a beautiful concept: something that was solely intended for the creator’s pleasure could last beyond their death and impact others. This really pushed me to be a little more creative with how I spent my time. It is admittedly much easier to use all this extra time to lounge around and scroll mindlessly through our phones. However, I think that carving out a little time to do something creative — whether it be drawing or writing or whatever hobby that you always neglect because a lack of time — could be incredibly restorative.

The last thing that really struck me about Station Eleven is its discussion of fame. The majority of chapters that take place before the pandemic follow a famous actor who dies during a production of King Lear. One of the people who saw him die grew up to become a member of the Travelling Symphony. Whenever the troupe comes across an abandoned house, she searches for magazine clippings of him, as it is the only truly vivid memory she has of that time. Her fixation isn’t because he is famous, but because he is the last remaining trace of her previous life. In this post-apocalyptic world, this actor isn’t remembered for his movies; he is remembered for being remembered. 

While I was reading this book, that god-awful celebrity cover of Imagine had just come out, and I couldn’t help but laugh. As one of the characters remarks, “first we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” Fame has always seemed meaningless and arbitrary to me, but especially so now. We’re in the midst of a global crisis and this is what these celebrities choose to be remembered for? Yes, fame is ephemeral, but why don’t more famous people take the fleetingness of it all as an opportunity to do something of value?

Even though it depicts the worst-case scenario, there is a lot of hope tucked in this story.

I probably won’t read another pandemic novel during this uncertain time because there’s only so much doom you can take in before you explode, but reading Station Eleven was quite the experience. I usually read to escape, but this was one of those cases where escape just wasn’t possible. Even though it depicts the worst-case scenario, there is a lot of hope tucked into this story. The hope that permeated through this book gave me hope for our situation. And in times like these, hope is really the best thing that we’ve got. 

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