Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

King Lear, 1950. Artist: Goncharov, Andrei Dmitrievich (1903-1979)

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.

    art_deco_cello_musician_vintage_poster_posters-r7b63e68adce044bd845d4d63722fa21c_xxgf_8byvr_512

     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.”

Station Eleven Logo

MENU

     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.

MUSIC

End of the World as We Know It, R.E.M.  http://youtu.be/Z0GFRcFm-aY

1999, Prince

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

station eleven

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

the dog stars

   Nightly news just not providing enough despair for you?  Need more Ebola/bird flu/AIDS/mysterious illness fear?  How about Putin, ISIS, Al-Kaeda?  What about global warming and the melting of the polar ice cap and the extinction of animals or the prevalence of killer bees?  Just not scary enough to put you to bed with really great nightmares?  I have a solution:  Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic love song to a lost planet,  The Dog Stars.

    In daeandwrite’s normal posts, there are quotes from the novelists themselves and references to what other media outlets have said about the work.  In this one, I am not going to do that.  The Dog Stars was one of those books that kept popping up on my Amazon recommended reading list, and Goodreads recommendations, and on the shelf at the Morris Book Shop, but I avoided it, sensing that post-apolyptic was not my particular genre.  However, when novelist Will Lavender recommended it during a workshop, calling it a beautifully written book, I thought I would finally take the hint and read The Dog Stars.  Dogs I love.  Stars too.  How bad could it be?

DogStar

   Heller, a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men’s Journal and National Geographic Adventure, has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in both fiction and poetry.  I find these facts from his author bio in the book particularly interesting, because I’m fairly sure the publications listed do follow the AP Style Book and use punctuation.  Like periods.  Commas.  Quotation marks.  Heller gives a nod to punctuation occasionally, but it is as bleak as the world in which Hig, the narrator and protagonist of The Dog Stars, finds himself.

Nothing.  Nothing the whole way.  Roads empty.  Blessedly.  Usually are.  Had there been wanderers it would have fucked up everything, delayed our hunt.  Then I would have swooped, cut the engine, played the tape.  I have four songs on the CD rigged to the amp and the speakers:  they are titled

Turn Back North or Die

Turn Back South or Die

Turn Back East or Die

Turn Back West or Die

The words are easy to remember:  just the title over and over.  Followed by the exhortative:  We know you are here.  You will become dog food like many before you.

Bangley made me add that.

   There are passages of beautiful prose, descriptions of nature, fishing, hunting that sing with rapture and glory.  And there is death.  The flu that wiped out most of humanity, followed by “the blood” sickness that took most of the rest, then murder, destruction, self-protection, or looting.

The canopies of cottonwoods still shaded the river parks, some of the oldest and biggest fighting the drought just half dead, still clothed with leaves on one side.  And fire.  Not a corner of the city untouched.  As if it had been fire not flu that had swept death through the town.  The care, every one it seemed, scorched.  Where they were parked in the side streets in their rows, in mall parking lots, out on the highways, where they lay in such a chaos, such absence of patters some giant might have thrown them like pick up sticks.  Whole neighborhoods were burned to the ground.  Others looked as if torched just to melting and left to cool the way a pastry chef glazes a brûlée.  . . . And if there were skeletal trees there were human bones.  I saw them.  Not true skeletons as the connective tissue was gone, but the bones of the dead were everywhere gathered into heaps by some predator and scattered by scavengers.

     My book club members, with perhaps one or two exceptions, would not like this book.  It is so bleak, so realistically depressing.  And yet, such a critical warning bell of what we are wreaking on our own habitat.  The flu that kills The Dog Stars’ humanity is engineered.  The global warming that we mostly ignore has destroyed all the fish and many different mammals.  There are no elephants anymore in The Dog Stars.  No trout.  And very little humanity.  Read it advisedly.

MENU

   Heller thoughtfully provides a couple of lovely menus for a book club sprinkled through the despair of the novel.  The first is a meal Hig cooks for himself and his “partner,” Bangley, over an outdoor fire.

New potatoes fried in oil

Catfish

Dandelion salad with basil

And near the end, Hig enjoys a meal of fresh, creek-cooled milk and shepherd’s pie with butter.  “Well salted.  Ground beef.”

The beverages Hig and Bangley drink are water with an occasional treat of a Coke or a Dr. Pepper from an overturned tractor trailer.

MUSICdog stars

   Heller also gives a full round-up of music from “before,” and Hig’s “after” listening.

Before:

“Whiskeytown to Topley to Sinead.  We loved the Dixie Chicks, who wouldn’t.  Amazing Rhythm Aces.  Open Road, Sweet Sunny South, Reel Time Travelers, the scrappy fine bluegrass and old timer groups . . . Brad Lee Folk singing Hard Times.”

Those memories are too much for Hig after, so after he listens to blues.  “I can salve with Lightning and Cotton, BB and Clapton and Stevie Ray.  I can blast Son Seals singing Dear Son until the coyotes in the creek raise up a sympathetic sky ripping interpretation of the harmonica solo.  Piercing howls and yelps.  Sounds like it’s killing them and also like they love it.  Which when you get right down to it is the blues.”

MOVIE CASTING

Hig:   Aaron Eckhart

Bangley:  Robert Duvall.  Definitely.

Pops:  Tommy Lee Jones

Cima:  Olivia Wilde

   I won’t end with Happy Reading, because this really isn’t.  But it is a warning bell.

lassie  Lassie, my favorite dog star

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