Shakespeare Off the Grid

Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Station Eleven, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Fiction, depicts a world radically depopulated by a vicious outbreak of superflu. A traveling ...

Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Station Eleven, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Fiction, depicts a world radically depopulated by a vicious outbreak of superflu. A traveling symphony doubling as a Shakespeare troupe treks across the postapocalyptic landscape, performing classical music and an Elizabethan repertoire for villages in northern Michigan. While the violent hardship of wasteland survival has its place in the narrative—a villain known as the Prophet lurks in the margins, threatening rape and murder—Mandel finds an aesthetic charm in the world without us. Like tourists visiting Detroit for the ruin porn, characters in Station Eleven fondly observe the “beauty in the decrepitude” of their surroundings: “sunlight catching in the flowers that had sprung up through the gravel of long-overgrown driveways, mossy front porches turned brilliant green, a white blossoming bush alive with butterflies.”

Short chapters, fascinating characters, and strange settings (such as a derelict regional airport) make Station Eleven a compelling page-turner. But the most interesting aspect of the novel is its temporality. A famous, philandering, aging actor named Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart attack at the very beginning of the flu outbreak, remains central to the network of character relations. The narrative jumps back and forth between the years leading up to the plague, when Arthur is still alive, and two decades after the global disaster, when several survivors who had various levels of interaction with Arthur in the old days—his son, his ex-wife, his best friend, a child actor, and an ex-paparazzo—find their post-plague lives still affected by his (former) celebrity. Because of the temporal breaks, the mayhem of the “unspeakable years” immediately following society’s collapse remains outside the scope of Mandel’s narrative. Kirsten, a young actress who becomes the protagonist of the postapocalyptic period, cannot even recall how she survived that brutal time. Skipping beyond the cannibalistic carnage of narratives like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Mandel’s devastated environment allows characters in “the territory once known as Virginia” to enjoy a glass of wine in the evening, lazily watching the fireflies rise and listening to the “gentle music” of the nearby river.

The shifting temporalities of the novel also admit its central paradox. On the one hand, Station Eleven reads as an anticipatory elegy, a “love letter” to our modern world, as Mandel herself has suggested. Chapter 6, the book’s most memorable, consists entirely of a list of phenomena no longer existing in postapocalyptic America, a list including “garbage pickup,” “porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights,” and “relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken.” We are often encouraged to see the ordinary features of contemporary life—electricity, anesthesia, tropical fruit—as “taken-for-granted miracles.” If this is the case, then Mandel’s imagined global holocaust serves merely as a moralistic reminder for readers to appreciate oranges and orthodontics. And the novel would thus leave itself open to Ursula Heise’s recent criticism that contemporary dystopias are regrettably characterized by a “too reassuringly familiar” focus on the “routines of everyday life” that saps their power to unsettle the status quo.1

And yet Station Eleven is clearly not a cautionary call to boost the funding of the CDC. Mandel’s work is more sophisticated than that, and even her characters register the idea that the horrors of a world falling apart—“the postapocalyptic movies with the dangerous stragglers fighting it out for the last few scraps”—have become clichéd. So in addition to the laments for the lost wonders of civilization, the novel also inspires longing for a post-catastrophe world. At times, the story suggests not warning but wish-fulfillment, a Luddite utopia. Gas-guzzling pickup trucks trade their engines for literal horsepower (why don’t people ever ride bicycles in postapocalyptic narratives?2), and musicians search empty houses for poetry to read during quiet hours. The loss of electricity eliminates literature, theater, and live music’s competition. No one in this future scenario plays video games, watches YouTube clips, or monitors a Twitter feed. The mysterious medium of television exists only in eternally black screens and dusty copies of TV Guide.

You can’t strengthen the humanities by destroying humanity.

This aspect of postapocalyptic hypothesizing is the ugly cousin of the deranged daydream that spending a few years in prison would allow you to catch up on your reading. It’s the sort of fantasy that’s particularly pervasive these days, especially among literary intellectuals. For every Doomsday Prepper cramming bottled water, ready-to-eat rations, and ammunition into his bunker, anticipating the sweet schadenfreude of hearing the anguished cries outside his door during the nuclear winter, there’s an elbow-patched English professor dreaming that his neighbors will finally care about Coleridge after the lights go out. The notion that the popular value of the arts and humanities will re-emerge among the ruins of modern life is an old one that remains oddly persistent. Jeremiads about the “Crisis in the Humanities” are often buttressed by a silent faith that demand for the liberal arts will rise in times of extreme scarcity—that, counterintuitively, humanistic knowledge will gain value at a time when science, math, and engineering would be most useful.3

Station Eleven’s itinerant thespians certainly aren’t starving. And their single-author offerings are peculiarly canonical. Others have imagined that postapocalyptic performers will enjoy staging re-enacted episodes of The Simpsons,4 but Mandel’s mobile entertainers are not expected to have updated their repertory. We learn that the company initially offered more modern plays, but “audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare.” As one member of the troupe explains, “People want what was best about the world.” Mandel has a long precedent here; David Brin’s 1985 novel The Postman (later a 1997 film starring Kevin Costner), features a peripatetic troubadour staging Macbeth scenes across hamlets in the ruined Pacific Northwest, and you could go a hundred years further back to Richard Jefferies’s 1885 After London, arguably the first postapocalyptic novel, to find, following a societal relapse into barbarism, a revival of ancient Greek tragedies.5 It’s tempting to think that the Western canon is so resilient, but global disaster should not be understood as improving the demand for dramatic classics. You can’t strengthen the humanities by destroying humanity.

The slightly perverted fantasy at the heart of Station Eleven doesn’t curtail its pleasures, but it does require a pause. Mandel’s characters occasionally point out the appropriateness of the Bard for a post-catastrophe crowd, noting that he too “lived in a plague-ridden society with no electricity.” It’s a good point, though some folks in Shakespeare’s day thought that if only a plague would come through and shut down those distracting theaters, people would stay home and spend more time with Scripture. Life is brief and art is long, and Shakespeare, who imagined his works performed “in states unborn and accents yet unknown,” might be less surprised than we would think to find one of his comedies staged in the parking lot of a ruined Walmart near Lake Michigan.6 But if the grid goes down and plunges us back into the Elizabethan era, it would be best to look to engineering before elocution. Should it come to that, I’ll take MacGyver over Macbeth. icon

  1. Ursula Heise, “What’s the Matter with Dystopia?” Public Books, February 1, 2015. Mandel’s narration certainly focuses on the minutiae of individual experience—“the small details that comprise … a life”—rather than the international geopolitical forces that threaten social stability across the planet.
  2. Megan McArdle, “Where Are the Bicycles in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction?,” Daily Beast, January 28, 2013.
  3. Emily St. John Mandel has said that Station Eleven is about “the importance of art in our lives.” Quoted in Ron Charles, “Sorry, Emily St. John Mandel: Resistance is Futile,” Washington Post Style Blog, October 15, 2014.
  4. Anne Washburn’s 2012 Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play features a postapocalyptic theater troupe that performs Simpsons episodes.
  5. David Brin, The Postman (Bantam, 1985); Richard Jefferies, After London; or, Wild England (Cassell and Company, 1886).
  6. Julius Caesar, III.i.114.
Featured image: Abandoned House. Photograph by Lindsey G / Flickr