Coincidence plays a significant role in Station Eleven. We’ve talked about coincidence before in regard to other novels—let’s plunge in again.
A coincidence is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection. The film Casablanca provides a great example. Rick, on the run from an unhappy love affair (and from the entire Third Reich) runs a bar in Casablanca, Morocco. Everything is just great till his partner in the unhappy love affair, Ilsa Lund, shows up (along with a bunch of Nazis and a husband). Rick delivers the immortal line: Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine. It’s a coincidence that creates the story. But it’s not unbelievable. Casablanca was the major transit point for people in Europe trying to escape the Nazis, and Ilsa and her husband are trying to escape the Nazis. And in Casablanca, everyone goes to Rick’s. So should Rick be shocked? He doesn’t seem to be. Of course, without this plot device, there’d be no story, and this is as true in Station Eleven.
An interesting observation about coincidence is that “as a literary device, coincidence is the presence of the author in the novel acting like an ancient Greek god directing events.”
Is this our eternal friend, the implied author? Yes, best beloved. Oh yes.
There was a lot of coincidence in ancient Greek drama. Oedipus, for example. There’s no causal connection between there being a prophecy that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother and the fact that he does, without being aware of course. The audience makes meaning of this by concluding that the gods were the ones who arranged this fate. In Station Eleven, Ms. St. John Mandel is the god who arranges the characters’ fates. But—a big but—it is not the flesh and blood author who does this but her creature, the implied author.
What are these coincidences in Station Eleven?
In the first scene, three important characters are introduced and connected: Arthur, Kirsten, and Jeevan, who goes to try to help Arthur when he collapses on stage. Miranda is also introduced early on. She is not only the ex-wife of Arthur but also the creator of the Dr. Eleven graphic novel.
Then we have the adult Kirsten and the members of the Traveling Symphony, and Kirsten’s fixation on the Dr. Eleven graphic novel, an artifact from twenty years before given to her by Arthur that I mentioned last week. We know at this point that Arthur and Miranda are dead; we don’t know about Jeevan. We learn about the otherwise unnamed Prophet, a mysterious and malevolent figure who menaces the Traveling Symphony and Kirsten.
Going back to an earlier time period, we are shown Arthur’s life, how he met and married Miranda. We learn about the genesis of the Dr. Eleven comics. And we learn that Arthur will divorce Miranda and marry Elizabeth Colton and have a child with her, a child named Tyler. Another important character is introduced, Clark, a friend of Arthur’s who also meets Miranda. Clark knows Elizabeth and knows that Arthur has had a son.
We learn that Miranda gives Arthur two copies of Dr. Eleven, one of which he presents to his son, Tyler, and one which he gives to Kirsten. Then Kirsten meets Arthur’s son, Tyler, who is of course now the Prophet.
Clark takes a last plane away from the pandemic and finds that Elizabeth and Tyler are aboard. They wind up at the Severn City Airport together. Elizabeth eventually leaves the airport, and Tyler displays increasingly bizarre behavior. (Reading the Book of Revelations in the Bible—often a bad sign).
Jeevan is the only main character who doesn’t die or encounter the others. He escapes Toronto after the death of his brother and heads south, where he eventually marries and has children.
Charlie and Jeremy, the couple who left the Traveling Symphony and who Kirsten is searching for, are eventually re-united with her at the Severn City Airport.
Clark—who has seen Kirsten before as a child (she doesn’t remember this) shows her a miraculous sight from the airport control tower: a far-off grid of electric lights. Electricity becomes hope. Someone has figured out how to generate and harness it again.
Maybe civilization is coming back.
So, a lot of coincidental connection, a web that is the story. Imagine how different it would be if the surviving characters just went off on their own (like Jeevan). It’s much more satisfying in this fine novel that most of the main characters are inevitably drawn together. It’s ironic too (homage to Jordan Catalano).
Next week, a new story, very different. Olga Tokarchuk’s Primeval and Other Times.