Many post-apocalyptic novels, especially those in which a massive reduction of the population stemmed from an outbreak of a virus, posit some sort of genetic change to parts of the remaining people, usually a condition characterized by crazed, flesh-eating zombies. There is none of that in this more realistic book, which takes place twenty years after a flu pandemic has brought an end to the old world. Certainly one sometimes encounters dangerous people, but they are just garden-variety unsavory characters, and one learns how to defend oneself and survive.
The story is told by people who are all connected in some way to Arthur Leander, a 51-year-old famous actor who died of a heart attack in Toronto while performing King Lear, just before the outbreak of the “Georgia Flu.”
The mise-en-scène beginning of the story is a microcosm of the book as a whole, which in some ways is a series of set-pieces featuring a traveling band of actors and musicians calling themselves “The Symphony.” At each town of any size they stop and entertain the public with concerts and theatrical performances. While they occasionally do other plays, people tend to prefer Shakespeare the most. “People want what was best about the world,” one of the group explains. Their motto, painted on one of their caravans, and taken from an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager” is “Survival is insufficient.” This is also the saying that the main protagonist, Kirsten Raymonde, has tattooed on her arm.
Kirsten was eight when the flu came, and at the time she was playing a bit part in Leander’s “King Lear” production. She had taken a liking to Leander, and he had given her some science fiction comics penned by his first ex-wife, called the “Station Eleven” series starring “Dr. Eleven,” a physicist who travels around on a space station after aliens took over the Earth. She still carries the comics with her everywhere. Kirsten remembers Arthur vividly, even though she can no longer even recall her own mother.
In alternating chapters, the author moves back and forth between the pre- and postapocalyptic times, and we learn more about Arthur’s life, and about the others who are featured in the book and who knew Arthur.
But this is more than a memoir and ode to a bygone way of life. When The Symphony comes to a town called St. Deborah by the Water, they discover the town is under the control of a religious cult leader calling himself The Prophet, who follows The Symphony after they leave with malicious intent. It is a new race for survival to see if members of The Symphony can reach a rumored haven in a former airport near the old city of Chicago before they are eliminated by this mysterious Prophet. The Airport is said not only to offer a safe place to live in peace, but houses something called The Museum of Civilization, where travelers have left artifacts of the former world – from credit cards to passports to laptops – so that the next generation can see what the world used to be like.
When a showdown comes between Symphony member survivors and The Prophet, a large twist reveals how truly interconnected this pared-down world really is.
Discussion: This story is admirable for foregoing unreal elements that could steer the plot into silliness. I believe it is even supposed to be somewhat uplifting, with its glimpses of the dogged tenacity of nature manifested as the greenery and flowers that reclaim the spaces once overrun by concrete and steel, and of the perseverance of cultural excellence from the old world, such as classical music and Shakespeare. The author notes that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” often performed by the troupe, was written in 1594, the year London’s theaters reopened after two seasons of plague. Plague frequently closed Shakespeare’s theaters, and yet they consistently reopened, in one more way in which the threads of the plot interconnect. Nevertheless, I found the book bleak and depressing. It probably should be, given that it is “post-apocalyptic,” but it was also a bit too “theatrical” for me to get fully invested emotionally in the characters. By presenting the plot in “scenes” and dramatic interludes (echoing not only the plays but the panels of the Station Eleven comic books) rather than an organically evolving story, I felt more conscious of the “literariness” of the book than of being able to lose myself emotionally in the lives of the characters.
There is furthermore an overall tone of quiet and tranquility, which seems at odds with a post-pandemic struggle for survival. It suggests, rather, the dreamy, stage-play metaphor that permeates the prose. This was yet another aspect of the book that kept me distant from it.
Evaluation: In many ways this is an excellent novel, and was included on many “top ten books” lists for 2014. I agree it was very well done, even if, for me, the style tended to overwhelm the substance.
A legitimate question is why I felt the “distance” in this book, even as I loved Peter Heller’s Dogstars (see my review here), another very low-key and thoughtful post-apocalyptic story. I would say that because Heller’s book focused mostly on one character, his inner meditations legitimated its format of poetic musings more than does a book in which social interactions dominate the narrative. In addition, Heller’s images both of what was lost and what still existed are more detailed and arresting, so that despite the “lyrical” nature of the work, I was able to immerse myself more in the feelings expressed and observations made by the narrator.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, a Penguin Random House Company, 2014