Choosing an angle of approach for Emily St. John Mandel’s novels is like saying, “I want to learn to dance.”
What kind of dance? Ballet? Ballroom? Jazz? Hip-hop?
Folk, you say.
Fine. Irish clogging? Korean fan dance? Indian kathakali? American square dance?
One could examine Mandel’s novels with regard to pandemic, apocalypse, motherhood, biblical invocations, ethics, the nature of existence, regret and culpability, not to mention genre. Her three most well-known works, Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel, and Sea of Tranquility, are not sufficiently interrelated to constitute a series. But familiar characters turn up in each, and knowing their back story augments recurring themes.
The trio maintains signature consistencies, while each book retains stylistic differences. Where the almost-but-not-quite prophetic pandemic of Station Eleven (2014) is avowedly post-apocalyptic, The Glass Hotel (2020) is squarely in the gothic tradition. Sea of Tranquility (2022) is sci-fi, complete with time travel, interplanetary colonization, and the suggestion of simulated reality.
Perhaps Mandel’s background in dance—she attended the School of Toronto Dance Theater—is responsible for some of the choreographic moves in her novels. Her ability, for instance, to step nimbly from ghost story to literary fiction to sci-fi; to circle through scenes and characters while keeping her authorial eye on a fixed point; to maintain pace and rhythm with a narrative that keeps readers slightly off balance but never unintentionally jolts, grinds, or jars.
I was perhaps the last reader in North America to hear about Station Eleven (and even later in reviewing it). Amid the mid-2020 haze of news and paranoia—difficult to discern one from another—I recall talk of an eerily prescient novel about a catastrophic pandemic. Its readership had skyrocketed. My thought: Why? Reading a work almost guaranteed to tip my personal anxiety scale seemed foolhardy at best, disastrous at worst.
However, by early 2022 viewers were celebrating the HBO series, everyone I knew was succumbing to and surviving mild cases of COVID, and the worst of the pandemic appeared to be behind us. Intrigued by a review of Station Eleven that highlighted the novel’s attention to art, I checked it out from the library. As a former bookseller I’m used to sampling books I don’t expect to read in full. I merely intended to get a feel for Station Eleven, skimming with my eyes half shut to avoid the rotting corpses. In the end I bought my own copy; and I didn’t even have to close my eyes.
Art in Action
Given Mandel’s training, the absence of dancers among the actors, musicians, visual artists, and writers that populate her novels is mildly surprising. Yet despite the presence of all these artists, art as art receives little overt attention. Few if any propound the existential value of their work; it’s just what they do.
In a tantalizing passage, members of the Traveling Symphony, an itinerant Shakespeare company, discuss the Star Wars quote, “Because survival alone is insufficient.” In a post-apocalyptic setting, survival is of the essence. But although the quote is tattooed on the arm of one of the actors, Kirsten, neither she nor her companions suggests what it is that makes living worthwhile. Most characters are working hard to stay alive; no one questions why.
Caught up in the story as I was, it came to me only later that the role of art is tightly woven into nearly every aspect of the work. Given the fact that Station Eleven is itself a work of art, the potential for examining how art functions in regard to it is virtually limitless. But the artistic functions with which this essay is most concerned are those of story-making, in various modes, and of forging connections.
Story in particular, but all art to some degree, is concerned with time. Story, in its narrative nature, is concerned with the past—where we have been, origins—and the future—where we are going, purpose. Zig-zagging touchdowns at points along a timeline characterize all three of the novels in question. Mandel’s non-chronological approach fore-fronts time, drawing attention to cause and effect, before and after.
The technique enables Mandel—and readers—to observe connections between juxtaposed events far removed from each other in chronological time. Were the story to progress in a strictly linear fashion, these relationships would be more obscure. It also gives us a sort of God’s-eye view—outside of time, moving back and forth between past, present, and future, with the benefit of an omniscient narrator who grants insight into the minds of multiple characters.
The Story Within
We discover in the course of the novel that its title comes from a comic book series, Dr. Eleven. Its maker, Miranda, is widely relatable because, though a gifted artist, she never achieves professional “success.” The comic is a labor of love, created during spare moments on and off her day job. When we meet up with the series post-pandemic, Miranda has already succumbed to the disease.
In Dr. Eleventhe eponymous station is a simulated planet launched from Earth to seek alternative habitation. Its occupants left Earth understanding they would never return. But some of the station’s systems malfunction, and the inhabitants take refuge underground, in “Undersea.” A significant rebel group wants to go home—back to their origins.
Mandel highlights the parallels between the world of Undersea that Miranda depicts and the office where she works and creates: ordered, quiet—the sort of place an artist is likely to find conducive to creativity. Miranda’s partner, Pablo, accuses her of always being “half on Station Eleven” (p. 86).
Stories are a means of finding ourselves, perhaps most often when they look like escape. Certainly part of the artistic process is immersing oneself in the work. But creating metaphor can also provide self-understanding. The inhabitants of Undersea “spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin” (p. 86). The question hovers: Is Miranda, too, stuck in an unlived life? Is it her “undiscovered” nature as an artist that suggests this? Or her largely solitary lifestyle?
Connecting through Story
Shortly before the pandemic, Miranda has two copies of her series custom printed. Two of them surface later, each the treasured possession of seemingly random characters. In art as in life, however, there are no coincidences. Both characters turn out to be associated with Miranda’s ex-husband, actor Arthur Leander. One copy of Dr. Eleven belongs to Arthur’s son. Tyler has grown up in Israel with his mother, Arthur’s first estranged wife. (Yes, Arthur is a typical celebrity with a string of relationships and spouses.)
The other copy belongs to Kirsten. As a child actor, she was onstage when Arthur, playing King Lear, succumbed to a heart attack. That same night the Georgia flu descended on Toronto. Between that time and when she reappears post-pandemic, Kirsten loses both her parents and her brother. She has spent the past fourteen years touring with The Traveling Symphony.
Both Kirsten and Tyler retain intimate ties to Dr. Eleven. In a climactic scene, Tyler quotes a passage from the comic reminiscent of Genesis 1: “We are the light moving over the surface of the waters, over the darkness of the undersea.” Kirsten, surprised, attempts to forge a connection by invoking another line: “We long only to go home.” A nameless youthful bystander enjoins, “We have been lost for so long.” It is unclear whether Tyler recognizes the quotes. Perhaps his insensibility attests to his incapacity for personal connection, even through art.
When readers of Station Eleven first meet up with the Shakespeareans, twenty years after the start of the pandemic, social structures, factories, communication, and transportation have all broken down. The decease of ninety-nine percent of the world’s population has depleted the work force. Deserted roads still harbor lines of dilapidated cars, fuel-starved mausoleums for their now-skeletal passengers. Though looters have laid claim to most items of value, Kirsten and her companions like to explore abandoned houses and collect relics of civilization. One of Kirsten’s friends calls her an anthropologist.
Inevitably, competition for limited remaining resources drives some survivors to predation. Others, in the absence of legal and social structures, turn essentially feral. But some, like the members of the Shakespeare company, have banded together for mutual survival. By the end of the novel, stable, self-sufficient townships have begun to coalesce.
One of these has sprung up around the airport, originating with travelers stranded when their planes were grounded. Clark, one of Arthur’s former roommates, curates a collection of now-useless items—i.d. cards, his laptop, cell phones, stiletto heels. If the objects themselves are not generally regarded as art, they nevertheless represent human collaboration and centuries of scientific discovery, each made possible by previous innovations. Clark’s reflections are the stuff of story—the human effort, skilled and otherwise, that went into the production and distribution of the museum’s artifacts.
Memory, story, connects us to our origins—our home. But Station Eleven demonstrates that for those who can’t go back, human connection provides another type of home. Art and story facilitate and celebrate those connections.
In the movie “Shadowlands,” a student of Narnia author C.S. Lewis says, “We read to know we are not alone.” My version: “We read to understand our story.” But maybe these are one and the same. At its best, story—art—connects us. An individual in a vacuum has no story; we are nothing without connectedness.
According to the pathology of the book’s pandemic, a single plane load of infected passengers passing through the airport would have contaminated everyone. At the end of the book one plane, never vacated, still sits at the side of the tarmac, a metal sarcophagus. I pictured hysterical passengers prohibited from leaving the plane while they succumbed to the disease, one by one.
However, in an interview with Mandel, interviewer Emma Brockes referred to the scene as “an act of self-sacrifice” (April 2022, The Guardian). Read this way, the passengers’ voluntary isolation make possible the unlikely community that springs up around the airport.
I made up my story. Young Tyler, in the novel, makes up another. In a scene that takes place in Year Two of the pandemic, elementary-aged Tyler stands beside the plane. He is reading aloud a passage about divine judgement from the Book of Revelation: “Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her” (p. 259). Tyler’s story offers protection by elevating him above those who have perished. Similarly, other passages reference cults whose belief that the pandemic was a judgement from God is followed bizarre behaviors and lifestyles. Such is our need to impose meaning on our circumstances, no matter how implausibly.
Inadequacies of Art
If art can be said to have a dark side, it is surely in its susceptibility to human fallibility. Indeed, the somewhat dated terms “artifice,” “artful,” and “art” denote inauthentic behavior. In a conversation shortly before Arthur’s death, Miranda realizes Arthur’s speech and actions mimic those of an actor on stage. “Did this happen to actors,” she wonders, “this blurring of borders between performance and life?” (p. 211).
Arthur and Miranda are discussing the many letters Arthur sent to a childhood friend, Victoria, which she eventually published without permission. Arthur admits the letters functioned like a diary; at length he forgot Victoria was an actual person. Arthur is unquestionably the lead character in his own story.
The Traveling Symphony, with its disparate congregation of actors, musicians, and support persons, provides ample opportunity for the display of human frailty. Petty annoyances, competition, and envy are commonplace. Mandel never offers a transcendent moment, in which mundane reality falls away before art-induced epiphany. The everyday, with its grit, grime, hunger, death, and absence of air conditioning is ever-present. No doubt Mandel the dancer knows that the magic follows the blood, sweat, and tears. Nevertheless, creative collaboration provides the raison d’etre for the Traveling Symphony, and its members provide one another not only with survival but with purpose, a place to belong—quite literally, a role.
A Picture of Hope
In Station Eleven, as communities coalesce, schools emerge and children are taught about lost wonders of technology. On first reading, I wondered that the survivors exercised little discrimination in their nostalgia for the old world. But viewed another way, the “old world” is part of their story—the lost world that their parents survived and that will influence the shape of the new one.
The concluding pages depict Clark taking Kirsten into the airport’s control tower. He shows her lights in the distance—the first known incidence of electricity since the collapse of the old world. For me the scene invoked the biblical passage from Matthew 5 in which the “city on a hill” represents the light of the faithful. In Station Eleven it suggests the hope that humanity can sufficiently triumph over forces of brutality, division, and competition to reestablish civilization.
My husband and I recently attended “Come From Away,” a 2013 musical by David Hein and Irene Sankoff. Set in the Newfoundland island of Gander, it reflects events that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. An early scene features townspeople recalling where they were when they heard the news. It is a story of connections—people helping strangers stranded far from home by an unthinkable, violent act.
At the conclusion of the musical, the explosion of applause constituted one of the most enthusiastic expressions of audience appreciation I can recall. The work connected with the audience, as well as relating us to one another. We all remembered—and relayed to our companions—where we were when news of the disaster reached us and how we responded in the ensuing days and months.
Reading the Pandemic
The pandemic is, to an even greater degree, an experience shared by nearly every person alive in 2020–21. Books set and written during the pandemic are already emerging. Hello from Here, by Chandler Baker and Wesley King (Dial, 2021) was an early YA novel that seized the attention of my teen. No doubt in time flagship works will surface as touchstones for those who lived through COVID.
Mandel’s third book, Sea of Tranquility, offered me one of those “not-alone” moments. In the spring of 2022, after having waited impatiently for the release of the sequel to Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, the book reached me at the same time that all three members of our family succumbed to COVID. Reading the account of an author-mother on book tour when a pandemic breaks out—clearly an echo of Mandel’s life as an author and parent in 2020—from my own COVID-induced haze was a sort of 4D experience.
As my symptoms dragged on I began to feel like someone trapped in a time loop, as did many of us throughout 2020 and 2021—masks on, masks off, masks on again, schools suspended, schools in session, schools back online, social distancing, lockdown, sheltering in place … At such times of instability and isolation we need the connections offered by art more than ever.
We have focused on the functions of art as story and, thus, mediator of connection with ourselves and others in Mandel’s novels. But as anyone who has tried to define art will attest, its attributes are much more difficult to pin down. Art is not a charm one can invoke to ensure collegiality. Nor does it, on its own, provide sufficient purpose to sustain life. Mandel does not pander to the idea that Miranda’s long dedication to her Dr. Eleven comics was worthwhile because it imparted meaning to her life or to her few post-pandemic readers.
Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of art’s function is the existence of Station Eleven and its sequels and the role they played during the pandemic. We are not unlike Kirsten and Tyler reading Dr. Eleven. Despite the differences between COVID and Station Eleven’s Georgia flu, thousands of 2020 readers sought and found themselves in Mandel’s work.