Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Hodgepodge 39/365 - Book Report (Station Eleven)

I am going to weave my book reports into this "hodgepodge." Seems only right (and less work for me). Anyway, I get to make the rules. This year, I am not going to set myself a goal of a specific number of books; I'm just going to read and at the end of the year tally up—find out what my natural tendency is when it comes to tackling literature.

So, herewith my first book report of year 2: 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) (12/6/16)

It was a quick read—an excellent page turner. Set in the very near future, it's a look at humanity after a swift flu epidemic wipes out 99 percent of us. I almost said a "dystopian look," but in fact, the book is uplifting. It ends on a note of hope. Of a future.

The book starts in the present day, at a Toronto performance of King Lear, on the day the plague sets in in North America. The actor who plays Lear dies onstage of a heart attack. Thereafter, several threads weave through: into the future, and back into the past, anchored by the first-day people—ones who were at the theater, ones who had relationships with the actor—and by the people in those individuals' lives. It's skillful writing and beautifully syncopated. The story ends in about 2035. Not so far into the future. Close enough to bring chills.

The story is complex, so I'll just mention that a central thread involves a troupe of actors and musicians, the Traveling Symphony, who wander the altered world of the upper Midwest. They encounter a violent "prophet" and decide to escape to a rumored Museum of Civilization, in a place outside their usual territory.

I marked eight passages for the bravado of the writing, but also for the emotion. Here are two. The first one is written before the plague, a letter from the actor to an old friend he grew up with in western British Columbia.

"I was thinking about the island. It seems past-tense somehow, like a dream I had once. I walk down these streets and wander in and out of parks and dance in clubs and I think 'once I walked along the beach with my best friend V., once I built forts with my little brother in the forest, once all I saw were trees' and all those true things sound false, it's like a fairy tale someone told me. I stand waiting for lights to change on corners in Toronto and that whole place, the island I mean, it seems like a different planet. No offense but it's weird to think you're still there."

It echoes, in its hauntingness, the after-the-plague affect:

"This silent landscape. Snow and stopped cars with terrible things in them. Stepping over corpses. The road seemed dangerous. Jeevan [a man in the theater that night] avoided it, stayed mostly in the woods. The road was all travelers walking with shell-shocked expressions, children wearing blankets over their coats, people getting killed for the contents of their backpacks, hungry dogs. He heard gunshots in the towns so he avoided these too. He slipped in and out of country houses, searching for canned goods while the occupants lay dead upstairs.
     "It was becoming more difficult to hold on to himself. He tried to keep up a litany of biographical facts as he walked, trying to anchor himself to this life, to this earth. My name is Jeevan Chaudhary. I was a photographer and then I was going to be a paramedic. My parents were George of Ottawa and Amala of Hyderabad. I was born in the Toronto suburbs. I had a house on Winchester Street. But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments. This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air. Finally whispering the same two words over and over, 'Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking.' He looked up and met the eyes of an owl, watching him from a snow-laden branch."

Although these passages are no reflection, there is something hopeful in the way the characters, whether in the past, the present, or the future, continually remake their lives, hanging on to what they know to be true, trying to be better, to make meaning, to connect. The Traveling Symphony's motto, which comes from Star Trek: Voyager, episode 122, is "Because survival is insufficient." It is the lesson of this book.

Oh, and the book's title: it comes from an imagined parallel world explored in graphic novels created by the first wife of the actor. Yes, it all comes together and makes sense in the end. Truly!

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