Monday, February 16, 2015

Museums of Civilization: "Station Eleven"

I have just finished reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  For an apocalyptic novel, it was surprisingly sweet and funny.  The book is filled with quotes, like this one:  "The Wendy's was a low square building with the look of having been slapped together from a kit in an architecturally careless era, but it had a beautiful front door."  (p. 50).   Or this one:  "Jeevan's understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he'd seen a lot of action movies" (p. 21).  Indeed, he knows exactly what to do:  stock up on groceries.  But that will only last so long.

I liked how the book skillfully cuts back and forth through time.  Somewhere a grad student is writing a dissertation that explores how our blogs and tweets and Facebook feeds and all the other social media lets us live both in the present tense and never far from the past--and this novel captures that aspect with breathtaking skill.

I love the idea of a travelling Symphony that plays music and performs Shakespeare.  I love the scene where a character asks another character if she's ever thought of giving up on the travelling life, and she says, "But in what other life would I get to play Shakespeare?"

That seems a valid metaphor for so much of our life choices.

I also enjoyed this interview with the author where she says, "We live and work in rooms lit up by electricity, we cross continents and oceans in hours instead of days or months, our trash is taken away when we leave it at the curb, speaking to someone on the far side of the world is as simple as entering a sequence of numbers into a handheld device. These are remarkable things that we too easily take for granted. One way to write about the modern world was to consider its absence, which is why I set parts of Station Eleven in a post-apocalyptic landscape. I thought of the book as a love letter written in the form of a requiem."

This quote shows that requiem style best of all of them:  "He'd known for a long time by then that the world's changes wouldn't be reversed, but still, the realization cast his memories in a sharper light.  The last time I ate an ice-cream cone in a park in the sunlight.  The last time I danced in a club.  The last time I saw a moving bus.  The last time I boarded an airplane that hadn't been repurposed as living quarters, an airplane that actually took off.  The last time I ate an orange." (p. 231)

The character who was speaking in the above quote goes on to collect all the items that have meant something to people but which no longer have use.  But they still have value.  I found myself wondering if they would still have value when the last generation who remembered using them passed away.

It seems to me that most artists are involved in this process of casting our memories in a sharper light.  For many of us, it's a process tinged with nostalgia and sadness.  We're capturing people, places, and things that either have passed away or are quickly passing away.

Heck, I do this even when I'm not writing.  A wave of sadness passed through me the other day when I sat by my friend's pool.  I remembered all the times we'd all swum together.  I thought of all the reasons why we're not swimming together now when the weather turns warmer.  Some of them are happy reasons:  I have a pool of my own.  But many of them are not happy reasons.

But as many an apocalyptic novel shows us, what can we do?  We must simply go on.  We all have our coping techniques:  making our art, collecting our objects, continuing to play classical music and recite Shakespeare in the face of apocalypse, reading a good book . . . the list could go on and on. 

If reading is your coping mechanism, I highly recommend Station Eleven.

No comments: