Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I have always hated impressionistic book reviews that lack any quotations or really explain anything besides the reader’s feelings. When you read reviews like that you’re getting more insight into their psyche than the substance of the book. I feel especially strong about the quotations part, and I feel like the worst offenders are takedowns of Guns Germs and Steel. The problem is less prevalent in reviews of fiction, but certainly not absent.

That said, it’s hard to write a review that does justice to a piece of art/text/work on which a person has spent so much time. Although most reviews offer more than Edward’s review of my short story, The Furies of Mars, which consisted in its entirety of the phrase, “truly awful and depressing,” it takes a lot of effort for a review to be substantial. I don’t promise substance in the following paragraphs, but I promise there will be at least one quotation.

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel for people who prefer literary fiction to sci-fi which explains the National Book Award nomination. A Canticle for Leibowitz it is not. The book is trying to be Infinite Jest where the sci-fi adventure story is shown rather than alluded to in foot notes, except it’s carried out by peripheral characters instead of the book’s twin protagonists. And in a book that is, I’d guess, a quarter the length.

I’m serious about the comparison. David Foster Wallace’s ghostly influence is apparent throughout the book, rising and falling depending on which voice we’re inhabiting. The language is more accessible, but the feelings she’s trying to evoke are the same. A sample:

An incomplete list:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. Mor more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years.

That’s at the end of the first section there is a long list of things gone with the end of civilization. This is where the book shows the most promise, and I was excited to keep reading. Unfortunately, from here it zips through five different plots, and there simply are not enough pages to sustain the story. There is not one central story, around which the others are woven, but five independent plots that drop in and out, three of which are supposed to be equally important, I think.

Essentially, the book takes what would be a long sci-fi short story, about a traveling, post-apocalyptic theater troupe’s experience in a cult town and its ensuing bad experience (I want to say disaster, but the story doesn’t merit such a strong word), and spins a backstory around it that takes up the bulk of the novel. Or perhaps, the book takes several short stories or novellas and changes some of the details so they can all be tied together.

There are glimpses of a good story here, and there was just enough promise to keep me going until the end. For a moment I had hope she would tie it all together brilliantly, but alas, that does not happen. We see the connections between various post-apocalyptic characters, but the development of these connections is so rushed and packed into the final third of the book that it seems like maybe her editor told her she needed to give the reader something more.

Despite all this, I didn’t dislike the book. It is for the most part well-written, and eminently readable. But if you want to read a well-written book with a slapped together ending, I would recommend Swamplandia!  by Karen Russell instead. Both also have the similar quality of having chapters from the perspective of male characters who, while not terrible, are not written realistically.

The book I’m currently reading is Starlights and Storm, by Gaston Rebuffat. It’s the first of a fat stack of books I’m reading to research a follow-up to Goblin Ambush: A Dwarf Story. The dwarves are getting the novel treatment, and I want to do it right.

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About deconstructionapplied

Writer, freelance editor. Former Occupier.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. Pingback: Station Eleven: A Literary Pedigree | Will Stamp'd

  2. Pingback: Further, Final Thoughts on Station Eleven and the Post-Apocalypse | Will Stamp'd

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