Narrator (in the voice of Rod Serling): There is a literary
dimension beyond that which is known to book critics. It is
the middle ground between light and shadow, between sci-fi
and literary fiction, and it lies between the pit of our fears and
the summit of our knowledge. This is the dimension of
imaginative writing that is uneasy about getting labeled as
imaginative writing. It is an area which we call the genre
I think our faux Mr. Serling is referring to
those genre books that refuse to be genre
books. You know the ones I’m talking about?
Have you read The Time Traveler's Wife, a
hybrid between a sci-fi tale and a romance
story that never shows up in the sci-fi or
romance section of the bookstore? Or how
about The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a
dystopian horror novel with sci-fi ingredients
that would burn the hands of any librarian who
tried to put it on the shelf next to Lovecraft
and Matheson? Or all those fantasy-infused
novels by Haruki Murakami that we aren't
allowed to call fantasy books?
Add Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel to the list. This riveting
post-apocalyptic novel is loaded top to bottom with sci-fi elements,
but also maintains a firm and unyielding allegiance to the techniques
of highbrow literary fiction. Perhaps it's fair to remove it from the
sci-fi shelves, but that raises the obvious question: Is a book
disqualified from a genre label simply because it is well written?
Yet how can that be true? Frankly, I have more interest in reading
books than labeling them. But I feel compelled to call attention to
the strange state of affairs in which brilliant science fiction novelists
such as China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi are excluded from the
world of literary fiction, but a clumsy sci-fi novel with lifeless
characters such as Howard Jacobson's J gets listed for the
Booker Prize. Put simply, these distinctions no longer make any
sense. I'm not sure they ever did.
I give credit to Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post’s
Book World, who tried to escape the twilight zone. When Station
Eleven got nominated for a National Book Award, Charles noted
that it was "one of the very few sci-fi novels that have ever been
finalists for the NBA." But anyone familiar with the Twilight Zone
realizes that there is no escape. In this instance, author Emily St.
John Mandel took on the role of Rod Serling, and tweeted to
Charles: "I actually don’t think of Station Eleven as sci-fi."
At this juncture, I would like to cue The Twilight Zone theme song….
No, you can’t escape from the genre Twilight Zone. It is so embedded
in how books are packaged, positioned and marketed nowadays that
I can't see any way out.
But I come here not to label Station Eleven, but to praise it. Whatever
you want to call this novel, it is worth reading. I can imagine sci-fi
fans enjoying it, but I could also recommend it to my wife, who cringes
at the very term sci-fi—hates it even more than discussions about
hi-fi or wi-fi. The plot of Mandel's book is filled with the kind of
fireworks we have come to expect from futuristic fiction, but at
every step along the way, the novel is character-driven, never
relying on jargon and gimmicks. Even the most extravagant
circumstances in the novel—and there are plenty—proceed with
a kind of emotional rightness that makes them feel plausible.
At first glance, Mandel seems to avoid the twilight zone in this book,
and instead juxtaposes two very different narratives, the first a
strictly realistic account of life before the plague, the second a
future-tripping tale of post-pestilential society. The reader
vaguely grasps, during the opening chapters of this novel, that
Mandel will try to connect these two narratives, but at first glance
they seem incompatible. On one hand, we have a tale of
glamorous celebrities and infidelities in the TMZ-age, on the
other we grapple with survivors of a pandemic struggling to
maintain even a semblance of social order.
The inherent strangeness in Station Eleven is evident at the outset,
when Mandel decides to start her dystopian novel with a performance
of King Lear. Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor, has finally
reached the advanced age at which he can tackle the role of Lear.
But the play is marred by real-life tragedy, when Leander suffers a
fatal heart attack on stage. This account leads to flashbacks of
Leander's life, his career successes and failed marriages, his
friendships and betrayals.
A second narrative starts almost immediately after the King Lear
performance, when a deadly flu spreads rapidly through society,
killing almost everyone within a few hours of exposure. In the span of
less than a week, the population is decimated, and the few survivors
face the dilemma of whether to hide out, and watch their food and
other supplies diminish, or to flee to some destination where the
situation might perhaps be less ominous. But where can you run
when the epidemic has already spread everywhere?
At first, the shifts from the flashbacks to the future events are shocking,
a kind of narrative of disjunction that threatens to tear this novel apart.
And to add to the heady mix, Mandel inserts a third story, a meta-
narrative about an outer space world known as Station Eleven, where
two hostile camps battle over the future of the colony. Should they
stay on their crippled artificial planet, or make their way back to
planet Earth, where the returnees face subjugation and oppression,
but also can savor the joys of a homecoming to terra firma? This
story forms the plot of a comic book series concocted by Leander's
ex-wife Miranda, and for most of the novel the tale of her involvement
with Station Eleven lingers in the background as a peculiar sub-plot.
Each of these stories is compelling, but the reader experiences a
special pleasure when the incongruous narratives begin to interlink.
The tale of actor Arthur Leander eventually helps unlock the mysteries
of post-apocalyptic America. The outer space tale of Station Eleven
takes on mythic significance and serves as a symbolic springboard
for many of the key themes of the novel. Even the Shakespearian
pageantry that enlivens the opening pages of Mandel's novel returns
in new garb at its conclusion. All that is old becomes new again.
Perhaps we should create a new section in the bookstore for
Twilight Zone fiction of this sort. Put Station Eleven on the shelf
next to 1Q84, The Road, Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler's
Wife and the growing number of books that straddle the real and
the fantastic. Face it, many of the most interesting novels of recent
years would find a home on this betwixt-and-between section of
the store. Or perhaps even better, let's use this book to remind us
that science fiction novels can also be smartly written, and no
publisher ought to be hesitant about announcing that fact. Just
think: maybe this isn't just the age of Twilight Zone literature—perhaps
we are simply witnessing the start of a new Golden Age of science
fiction and fantasy.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His
next book, a history of love songs, will be published by Oxford
Publication Date: December 23, 2014
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Reviewed by Ted Gioia