This week, a new novel, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This acclaimed book was published in 2014 and has been adapted into a film version. Of course, the story is supremely timely as it deals with the impact of a flu pandemic that kills off most of the earth’s population, a foreshadowing of the real devastation caused by the Covid virus. Station Eleven also shows a global shipping crisis that leaves hundreds of ships at anchor unable to unload their cargo.
The title, Station Eleven, references a comic book owned by one of the main characters, Kirsten Raymonde. The comic is called Station Eleven and has to do with a physicist named Dr. Eleven who lives on a space station. In a favorite scene of Kirsten’s, Dr. Eleven is rendered looking out on a horizon and thinking, “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on earth.”
This is a nice metaphor for the book which concerns survivors of the pandemic.
There is a dedication: In Memory of Emilie Jacobsen. Emilie Jacobsen was Ms. Mandel’s literary agent.
And there is an epigraph from Czelaw Milosz:
The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And for me, now as then. it is too much.
There is too much world.
This too, seems to be an apt metaphor for the whole book and certainly suggests its theme.
Station Eleven is structured in sections—the first one entitled The Theater—and chapters are embedded within each section. The story begins with a scene showing the staging of King Lear in Toronto. It is from the perspective of Jeevan, a young man who is initially sitting in the audience. The first line is “The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.” This is the sort of thing an audience member would plausibly see on stage and represents the narrator showing what Jeevan is seeing—arguably expressed in rather poetic, Shakespearian language, setting a tone for the whole novel. The second sentence is “This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theater in Toronto.” It’s possible an audience member would think such a thing but more likely, it’s the narrator speaking to provide context for the scene. Speaking to the reader—Jeevan is not speaking to the reader, he’s watching the play. He doesn’t know he’s in a story!
An interesting thing occurs in paragraph 3. Arthur Leander, the actor playing Lear is speaking a line, “…distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this is when it happened.” Here we’ve caught Mr. or Ms. Narrator red-handed, telling the reader that “this is when it happened.” Jeevan, observing things, wouldn’t know that “this” —Arthur is having a heart attack—happens right then. It’s not till a few moments later that he suspects something is wrong. No, this is the narrator telling the audience that, in this fiction, the reader has arrived at a significant point. Pay attention! the narrator is saying.
The story continues, told generally through the perspective of Jeevan.
Chapter 2 shows a scene occurring at the same time as the previous scene with Jeevan, but in this one, he does not appear. (Can’t be two places at once). It is in a bar where several characters are discussing Arthur Leander’s death. The narrator is showing this scene, and there is no reporting from an internal perspective. At the end, the narrator does a nice foreshadowing thing by saying: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” This is the first hint at the catastrophe that’s about to come.
After we learn something about this catastrophe when Jeevan’s doctor friend Hua calls him and describes the outbreak of the deadly Georgian flu, we get a brief chapter of the narrator showing other reactions to Arthur’s death. There’s the introduction of another major character, Miranda, who is Arthur’s ex-wife. Then, the narrator returns in Chapter 6 with “an incomplete list,” of things that are no longer possible after the flu has killed most of the Earth’s human population. “No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit from below…No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd…No more pharmaceuticals…No more Internet…No more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches…” This is the nameless narrator speaking. Some readers might assume that the narrator is Ms. Mandel herself, that she is telling the story. Readers of this blog will know by now to scoff at such an innocent idea.
Let’s hear it for the over-educated!
The narrator tells the story that the characters experience, and is a mouthpiece for the Implied Author, the entity that wrote the book, a creation of Ms. Mandel.
Could we review who all these folks are?
The author, Emily St. John Mandel, created the story. In the story, there is a narrator who tells the story—the storyteller. In some stories, the storyteller may have different opinions than the author—this doesn’t seem to be the case in Station Eleven. Another way to say this is that the narrator in Station Eleven seems to be reliable. The major characters, Jeevan, Miranda, and Kirsten, live the story. The narrator tells a portion of the story through each of their perspectives. The implied author is the image of the author evoked by the work and expressed through style, ideology and aesthetics. This is important—a person might meet Ms. St. John Mandel at the grocery store and form an impression of her; perhaps she is serious or silly, plays with the fruit or something. But this same person reading Station Eleven would form a different impression of the author—an image evoked by the book. This implied author image is important because it’s the image that the author herself is giving readers. But the image is not the flesh and blood human.
Also, the reader infers particular ethical positions about the implied author from reading the text. One fairly explicit position in Station Eleven is that art is an essential part of humanity, no matter how challenged humanity becomes.
The narrator is an entity whose presence is expressed in words, evoked in the text of the story, if you will. In some novels, this Narrator may be a character who is telling the story, an “I.” In others, like Station Eleven, the Narrator is nameless and separate from the characters.
The Implied Author is an entity who is created by the real flesh and blood author to write the book. “It” makes choices about the structure of the story, including what to include in a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence. It chooses which characters’ perspective will be used to show a scene; it chooses what is to be shown and what is left out—that is, how time is handled. Are there gaps in time? Is the story episodic or continuous?
Take me to the station.
Till next time.