King Lear by Andrei Dmitrievich Goncharov (1950). Photograph: Alamy
Any novel that begins with an actor in a blue spotlight raging as King Lear will catch my attention. Ending the first chapter with the line, “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city,” will hold my attention. And Emily St. John Mandel’s apocalyptic vision of a post-worldwide flu epidemic did not let it go for the two days it took me to finish reading the novel, despite the near hopelessness of the narrative in Station Eleven.
Station Eleven begins at Lear in Toronto. That night and over the next few days, most of humanity is wiped out by the Georgia Flu, a killer that begins in the Republic and is shipped worldwide via a series of flights containing numerous patient zeros. With minimal contact, the flu is transferred and victims die within two or three days. St. John Mandel picks up the threads of civilization twenty years later, when Kirsten — who had performed as a child in the original Lear — is on the very perilous road with a Shakespearean/musical company called the Travelling Symphony.
Station Eleven is a National Book Award finalist and frankly, couldn’t be more timely given the press attention and world fear of Ebola. It’s a haunting vision: no electricity, no running water, no telephones, no gas, no cars, no grocery stores, no food. The only thing left in Mandel’s world after twenty years are the shells of fast food joints, Wal-Marts and Motel 6s. So much for great architecture. Tractor trailer trucks are pulled by horses, people hunt and fish for their food or they don’t eat and suspicion is the first emotion experienced when greeting a stranger.
The most hopeful thing about Station Eleven is the existence of a Travelling Orchestra with a Shakespearean troupe of actors. In all things and despite all things, art still exists and the humans who remain crave it. Performing on a stage set with candlelight and in costumes dredged from the poached houses of dead people, the actors carry their own weapons and defend themselves as conscientiously as they perform the words of the Bard. Yet, the lead caravan’s motto comes not from the Shakespearean canon but from a most-unlikely source: Star Trek. “Survival is insufficient.”
One could be quite literal and design a book club menu of canned items, spam and beans and olives. Or put together a Georgian menu in honor of the flu. My preference would be something grand and Shakespearean. Roasted turkey legs, great grogs of mead, loaves of bread, hunked at the table and slathered with fresh butter. If it’s the end of the world as we know it, might as well enjoy it while we can.
End of the World as We Know It, R.E.M. http://youtu.be/Z0GFRcFm-aY
Ground Control to Major Tom, David Bowie
Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix
Calamity Song, The Decemberists
End of the Innocence, Don Henley
Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones