Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Pandemic reading in pandemic times. Phil recommends. And Jay, surprisingly, likes it.
JAY [00:00:09] Welcome to Dogeared and Crack the podcast, where we each recommend a book for the other and then play Monday morning quarterback.
PHIL [00:00:28] So so, Jay, you read Station Eleven, and we're going to talk a little bit more about the book. But before we get into it and what you thought about it, why don't you just introduce, it a bit for people who may not know it. And tell us a bit about the book and the writer, Emily St. John Mandel.
JAY [00:00:44] So, quick interesting fact. Emily St. John Mandel, so apparently St. John is actually her middle name. Born and raised on Denman Island, which is off the coast of British Columbia. As we know, there is a main character who actually comes from an island off the coast of B.C. as well. Delano Island. This is actually Emily's fourth novel. And at the age of 41, and even with five novels under her belt right now, I'm sure she's eagerly awaiting a review of Station Eleven. So I would summarise Station Eleven, the way--I would say it's a novel that covers a lot of ground because it moves back and forth between the past and the current. So it's changing locations, time frames, and it's doing that to basically piece back fragments of different people's experience of the same event. So the basic premise, and I do have a nitpick Phil with the premise, is that a virus makes landfall in Toronto. It's off a plane from, I believe, Georgia, Russia. And there we are basically treated to a view of the destruction of society. And it goes back in time to call it pre-virus days, and we see kind of these characters in a different world, in a different environment. And then we see them in the in the future as well under a totally different situation. Truth be told, I was really not in the right headspace or mindset for yet another post-apocalyptic story. Did appreciate the idea of this of a virus causing immense havoc worldwide. Not surprising.
PHIL [00:02:28] So, OK. Did you know anything about this book at all? Had you heard of it before? Before I asked you to read it?
JAY [00:02:35] No, I had heard nothing. So I was really kind of at your whim.
PHIL [00:02:39] OK.
JAY [00:02:42] Why? Why did you want me to read this book anyway? Why did you recommend it?
PHIL [00:02:45] So, there's a couple of reasons. So one of them is somebody suggested it to me and I read it and I was just, like, really enthused by it. And there were a few things. So I'd read a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff the last few years, I think I thought of myself as someone who's not really into zombie books and not really into post-apocalyptic stuff. And then I realised that I'd like read a whole lot of them. And so there were a few things that I liked about Station Eleven. I liked the kind of arts angle to it, that it's not all just survival, right? And I just found it really built this world that was very compelling in it. Like, you didn't want to be a part of it because it was dystopian, but it just felt so real to me. And honestly, part of it is I thought, you know, I suspected that you might not like it or or it might be the kind of book that you would not be likely to pick up on your own or you might start and be like, oh, Jesus. So I was kind of curious about whether you were going to like it as well.
JAY [00:03:55] Spoiler alert. I thoroughly enjoyed it for many, many reasons. But essentially, I like how you commented on its kind of a worldbuilding, because all stories kind of build a universe. And this one was particularly interesting for me, because it laid out the stages of call it destruction, the stages of decline when a virus hits, when mankind starts to peter out and new societies grow up. But there's a particular section where they are in the airport terminal. Do you recall that?
PHIL [00:04:36] Yeah. Near the end.
JAY [00:04:37] Yeah. Just page by page, section by section, it kind of lays out how people go from hopping off a plane. puzzled, really in surprise, and then as they slowly adjust that environment, how everything starts to break down. But even there's a really great little line there about how they break into the Mexican restaurant. And somebody there insists on leaving a credit card at the cash. It's kind of like the last vestige of responsibility before everything kind of starts to evolve into something completely different.
PHIL [00:05:23] And, of course, then it winds up becoming the museum, right? The airport or part of the airport?
JAY [00:05:29] Yes. Yes. And that's one of my favourite parts of this book was how--and I describe it, it's kind of a hackneyed expression, but really, they were pieces of a puzzle. And once you started to realise that, as you're reading through it, it became really even more entertaining because you knew that as each section, on the surface, seems to introduce characters who are different, new or sequences that seem unrelated to anything else. You knew you got comfortable with the idea that throughout the book that the truth would be known and everything would kind of fit into the larger picture. So I really enjoyed that kind of way of writing.
PHIL [00:06:14] And what did you think about the King Lear stuff?
JAY [00:06:18] I enjoyed that part. I have to admit the first chapter, too, and you always kind of have to invest a little bit of time. But the first chapter, I was reading through it, a lot of characters are thrown at you. I'm not familiar with the play, so I wasn't sure who they were referring to, whether it was the actor's real name. But I did kind of enjoy that. And then, of course, there's a connexion later on in the in the novel with that where the travelling troupe of survivors goes from town to town putting on Shakespearean plays.
PHIL [00:06:53] Yeah, and I I have to confess, I only. And we'll talk about Lear later, I guess. But I've only seen one, production of King Lear. It was like 20 years ago and I hadn't actually read the play. So even the idea that the little girls on stage were unusual was something I hadn't realised until I read her author's note about it at the end.
JAY [00:07:19] My nit pick that I'd like to put out there is that the virus is not realistic.
PHIL [00:07:29] It's too virulent?
JAY [00:07:31] It's too virulent. It's too fast. So, if you had a virus that was killing people within twelve hours, it would be--the virus would eradicate itself quite quickly and would not spread. It would not be able to spread on a global basis. Now, I'm no immunologist or virologist or arguably I'm not even virulent, but the I did find that kind of interesting. I understand for story purposes that worked quite well, but's that that's essentially it. So, we see an actor die on the floor in the first chapter while he's performing King Lear. He turns out to be a pivotal character in the story, which is interesting because he's passed away in the first chapter. We go back in time to meet him. And part of the book that actually really resonated with me, and it shows up a couple of times, either explicitly or just in the storyline itself, but it's this concept of people's lives connecting with each other's lives and how things evolve. So, they use an example of everybody that's involved in having a package delivered to your door for one of the characters, Jeevan and his brother Frank, who ends up paralysed from a bullet in Afghanistan. But the way in the past is described, it is everybody who's involved in that, and all the kind of, all the events that need to take place and the confluence of those events that all culminate with him getting shot. And it's an interesting story that way, and again, with the main character--and it's kind of his connection to everybody else in that novel that makes the story. So even though he's dead in the first chapter, there's a legacy kind of lives on that way.
PHIL [00:09:22] Right. And there's all these threads with all these people connected to him in different ways, right?
JAY [00:09:27] That's right. Yeah. To me, that was one of the appeals. I really enjoyed reading the book from that basis. Station Eleven refers to this idea of graphic novel. What did you think of that?
PHIL [00:09:43] I wanted to read it! Is anybody going to publish Station Eleven?
JAY [00:09:49] It reminded me of Doc Savage or something like that. And it just brought back these memories of being a kid and really enjoying comic books.
PHIL [00:09:58] Right. So Miranda...
JAY [00:09:59] The first wife of Arthur, yes.
PHIL [00:10:02] Right. So, I mean, I. I thought it was really interesting how she works an office job and she's creating this incredible graphic novel that kind of builds this other world within the world. And then you wind up finding these comics. You know, in the future storyline, 20 years from now, like the way that all tied together. And I think one of the things for me with this book was just the way she had thought through how everything falls apart. Kind of one step at a time like this is gone and then that's gone. And I mean, obviously your experience of reading this during a pandemic is going to be kind of different from mine reading it a year or two ago. And I've been thinking about that a lot. You know, the whole realising that what seemed like new information or what seemed like normal this week was completely not normal ten days ago. Right? So, we went to Florida in early March. And a few days after we came back, we were not required to self-isolate at that point, and a few days after that, I went to Costco and it was packed. And, you know, they sanitised the carts on the way in, but I was kind of paranoid. The whole idea of going there at all now just seems completely, you know, like absurd. Like, how could I even have thought that was a good idea? And so I thought the same in Station Eleven, but I think it kind of captured that ongoing--all the little things that we don't often see in this kind of literature, like where do you get your insulin? I was thinking, like, what happens if I get a kidney stone? Like, I'm screwed, right?
JAY [00:11:55] Yeah, I think there is even a reference to that where somebody got a cut or something. I really enjoyed kind of that sequencing, the way she put quite a bit of effort into this idea of what that would actually look like in terms of how societies would run. I would have enjoyed a little more illumination on how that would actually work for a lot of this. I did find there's a whole interesting passage there where Jeevan is with his brother Frank in the apartment. And how they just stay there with really no place to go. And that was just, you know, it it was sad to read at the same time. I understand what you're saying. For me, reading this now, I was able to connect probably a little better in the sense that I've been forced to give some of these ideas already thought. I've seen my own world change. I've seen others' worlds change in ways that neither you nor I really expected back in the beginning of March. And now it's changing again, even as we speak. And arguably, we live in a culture of fear these days. And fear and tension, and that's starting to change, and eventually we will begin to normalise ourselves. But this book kind of captures that. It captures this idea that nothing is is is certain, everything is is up for change. And what it does to people and how some people react fairly well. Others don't. Some people survive and others don't as well. What do you think about the storyline? Is there anything you would have changed?
PHIL [00:14:05] I don't think so, but I tend to kind of--it's rare unless there's something I really dislike--it's rare that I kind of think, \the writer should have done this instead. I was going to ask you actually, though, because The New York Times had a review of Station Eleven that took it to task for not being violent enough and that they weren't all like out for themselves. And that was something she talked about in her author's note where she said she wanted to show, or maybe it wasn't in the author's note, but she did address that somewhere that she said enough time had passed, that you wouldn't continue to be in this, you know, survival, violent, you know, hunker down, everyone for themselves sort of state. That you'd reach some kind of equilibrium. And that's what, you know, she was trying to capture. And I found I was kind of irritated by that Times review. So I just wondered if you read that, and I wondered what you thought of that.
JAY [00:15:05] Well, I haven't I haven't read that Times review. That's interesting. That idea that the book wasn't violent enough. I I did look at it from that perspective in the sense of was it realistic? And I would like to think that--I don't think we know for certain. So, we've been inundated by The Walking Dead series, zombie movies where everyone is out for themselves and man basically declines to a primal behaviour where he's really just robbing. Taking what he can. It becomes survival of the fittest. But the end, the day, when you think about it, mankind and human beings as a species, we've evolved through cooperation and we've we've raised ourselves up from basically living like animals to where we are today, really through cooperation with other human beings. So I kind of like to believe that her alternative version of what a post-apocalyptic world would look like is actually feasible, that people can start to cooperate with each other, that they would out of necessity, because it would be far more efficient than gaining what you need through violent means.
PHIL [00:16:27] Well, there's been a bunch of people who've written stuff in our current situation about that, too, right? Saying, you know, we had all these prepper fantasies of, you know, I'll--but like, the reality is people sewing masks for each other and you know, like finding--there's a writer, she's from Montreal originally, called Cecil Castellucci. And, you know, she said something about how she was trading books for sourdough starter, right? Like, there's there's a lot of that mutual aid stuff. Tell me what, you know, you talked in the beginning about how you didn't think it was going to appeal to you and, you know, we have this rating system that I love that you came up with. So why don't you take us through the rating system and tell us, you know, explain the rating system and tell us how you rated it after the first few pages and then by the time you were done?
JAY [00:17:28] Absolutely. The rating scale that I think we've come up with here, is one to five stars. So five stars being, call it full throttle. It pulls you in and doesn't let you go. It's a page turner. You're just flipping through it, just waiting to see what happens next. Four stars. It's gripping. Three stars. It's plodding. It's starting to--your mind starts to wander. Your starting to remember that maybe it's recycling day on Tuesday and you're not sure if you took it out. Two stars, it's meandering. Plot is kind of going every which way but loose. And one stars. It's just flat, and you're constantly flipping to the end of the book to see how many pages are left to endure. So with that kind of scale, I would say after the first one or two chapters, I was around three and a half. It moved, it engaged me, but I wasn't captivated. But by the end the book, I would give it a four and for its genre, I think it's a four and a half.
PHIL [00:18:40] Well, tell me about that. It gets one rating overall and one rating for its genre.
JAY [00:18:45] I would say so, because the genre itself isn't my favourite genre, but what I did like about it is it provided a different, more creative view of the future. And she structured the book in a way that actually made it almost like some type of Agatha Christie novel where every clue is in a different chapter, and then finally everything gets pieced together at the end. So I that's why I would give it four and a half for that genre. Now, if we're talking about books overall, that's why I kind of have to limit it back down to a four. I just think there's other books out there that are probably a little little higher rated.
PHIL [00:19:32] You know, it's interesting you said that because I was thinking, you know, I went through a period of reading a lot of zombie books and I'm trying to remember the title of it now. But there was one that was known as this kind of more literary one. And I hated it. And...
JAY [00:19:46] What about it did you not like?
PHIL [00:19:48] It was just really tedious and it seemed like, I'm gonna have to look up the name, but it seemed like it was attempting to be overly literary. And I think one of the things about Station Eleven is it is literary, but it's not tediously literary. Right? It's a good story. It's not hung up on her trying to show you what a good writer she is.
JAY [00:20:15] Yeah. There's not pages of descriptive prose. And I'm all about understanding kind of the scenario, understanding where that character finds themselves. But a few well-placed choice words is really all it takes for me to understand kind of that--it's more, I mean, there's a really nice--I'm trying to quote from memory here, but I had to look this up because I was actually interested. And amazingly enough or perhaps not amazing is there's a Web site, a Web page that's basically all about the road to what was the name of the place, Deborah by the river. Saint. Deborah by the river. Right. The author of this blog has actually gone to the trouble of trying to identify if these are real towns or not. And so she follows their journey with through Google. But there's a passage there where I actually did look it up because I was curious about this on the Northern Peninsula. There is a bridge that goes over. And there is a long passage there about how one of the characters looks out and sees the sky falling away and shrouded in mist. And it's a beautiful section and that's all I need. It was about a paragraph and that's all I need. And there's not that many of them in the book. And to me, that, to your point, I think made made for a really enjoyable reading.
PHIL [00:21:40] So do you have any any final thoughts on Station 11 before we leave it?
JAY [00:21:45] So one of the one of the questions that I think everybody likes to ask themselves is, would this book be made into a movie? Should it be made into a movie? Should it be a Netflix series? So I would answer the question this way. I would say, yes, this book could be made into a movie, but it absolutely should not. It's the kind of book that relies on the imagination of the reader to fill in those blanks. And if you start to present that world, even with the use of CGI or a large scale budget, I think it'll just take away from that magic.
PHIL [00:22:26] You know, there is a a series in production...
JAY [00:22:29] No!
PHIL [00:22:29] On Station Eleven. Yeah. Oh, and it's interesting because when it was announced, I saw someone saying on the one hand, I'm really excited. And on the other, I'm really worried they're just going to screw it up.
JAY [00:22:46] That is one series where I I will refuse to watch it because I just know I'm going to be disappointed. I don't know how you would do that. And the characters will never look like what I imagined them to be.
PHIL [00:23:00] I would be willing to bet there's more survivalist violence on TV.
JAY [00:23:05] There might be. Nobody listens to us anyway, do they? So what are your final thoughts on this book?
PHIL [00:23:13] Yeah, I guess that my final thought would be that I'm curious about her new book. So apparently because it's totally different also, so I'm just I'm just curious to see what what she's come up with. And I did notice that on Twitter she said, don't worry there's no pandemic content in my new novel. I don't think anyone even gets a cold.
JAY [00:23:35] I would thank you for for introducing me to it. I don't think I need to read another one of her books, but I think this one was was perfect.