Survival, Strategy, and Shakespeare


Of all the things imagined surviving past a global apocalypse, Shakespeare may be an obvious choice but not one often noted in the scores of stories and novels devoted to the idea of starting over.

That is, after all, the chief impulse behind such stories, that the slate is wiped clean and humanity has a chance to begin again.  A few works have gone further, most notably Nevil Schute’s On The Beach, to wipe humanity completely off the stage, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  But for the most part, someone must trod upon that newly set stage to continue the story, and who better to serve notice that this is exactly what such stories are about than Shakespeare.  “All the world’s a stage…”

Shakespeare haunts Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven like Banquo’s ghost from beginning to end. The novel begins with the death of Lear—more precisely, the actor portraying Lear on stage in a theater in Toronto the very day a devastating virus explodes across the planet, going to kill 90% or more of the human race.  It’s never quite clear if Arthur Leander is a victim of the flu or a heart attack, but his demise signals the beginning of the end for all that is familiar, and establishes the primacy of irony that runs through the novel.

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Mandel has kept her focus on a fairly tight and circumstantial circle of people to tell her story. Arthur Leander, actor and a bit of a patriarch, anchors the narrative.  In some sense his life is Shakespearean—as a young man he escapes from an island which holds all that anyone could ever want, and his retelling of it takes on the glow of a mythic place people imagine as an impossible paradise.  The island, while wonderful in many ways, is not where he wants to spend the rest of his life.  He returns to foreign shores to seek his identity and becomes a mask of himself, an actor.  As he becomes famous he keeps returning, at least in memory and often in epistle, to that island.  He marries a woman who came from there, an artist who ends up working for a transnational corporation but privately draws a comic about a lost outpost in space, Station Eleven, that in many ways resembles Prospero’s island.  This is Miranda, the most stable of his three wives, all of whom are in some sense “rescues.”  But Miranda is of them all the most real, the most important.  As Prospero’s daughter, she is the foil to the worst of her father’s machinations.

As Leander is dying, the play is in the middle of act 4, scene 6, of King Lear, and the audience knows something is wrong when he delivers a line out of sequence.  But it’s a telling line for what is to follow.  “Down from the waist they are centaurs,” he says but then does not finish it and instead says “The wren goes to’t,” which is from earlier in the scene when Lear is comparing the progeny of adultery to his “lawfully got daughters” in their treatment of their father.  It’s a confused reordering but pertinent given what is later revealed.  The first quote, complete, reads: “Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit— burning, scalding, stench, consumption!”

Given Arthur Leander’s penchant throughout his career of drifting from one woman to another, ending finally with three bad marriages and apparently about to embark on a fourth, this may be nothing more than the fevered remorse of momentary self-analysis, but it serves too as a metaphor for all the misplaced confidence our civilization instills in its devices, which look so dependable and yet…the remorse is poorly placed.  Arthur Leander seems much like his namesake, an idealist, in love, swimming a narrow strait every night to be with his love who loses his way and drowns.

Like Lear, his apparent mistrust of women is also wrongly placed, as it would be women who ultimately save not only his memory but that which is important to him.

But really this isn’t about women, not in this context, but about the matrix of civilization.

Twenty years after the collapse, we join a company of players, the Traveling Symphony, which makes the rounds near Lake Michigan, playing music and performing plays.  Shakespeare has proved the most popular with their small audiences, made up of survivors who have settled in odd places—abandoned airports, old motels, campgrounds—and are relearning how to live without electricity or running water or antibiotics.  The Georgian Flu that killed so many left too few to maintain all the complex systems.  Civilization is retrenching at an 18th Century level, but the artifacts of that globe-spanning civilization are all around.

One of the principle members of the Traveling Symphony is Kirsten, who as a child was in that final performance of Lear by Arthur Leander.  While she remembers almost nothing from that time, she collects celebrity magazine articles and other trivia about him.  She also has in her possession two issues of the comic book Leander’s first wife, Miranda, self-published.  Station Eleven will become a bizarre point of connection with another character who takes an even stranger path after the collapse.

At this point I’ll stop describing the plot.  Metaphors abound, the book is rich in irony. Shakespeare would recognize the various perversities and tragedies as Mandel flashes back over Leander’s life and those who surrounded or intersected with him, some of whom survive.  (There is a fascinating thread involving a paparazzi who appears in the first scene as a newly-minted paramedic who tries to administer CPR to Leander on stage.)  Mandel establishes her connections and the lay-lines of the chronicle very well and very plausibly.  The individual stories are affecting and compelling.

Rather I would like to talk about how this differs from what many readers may expect from such a novel, namely in its choice of conceit concerning the central idea, namely that well-trod path of starting over.

Many worthwhile novels have been written in this vein.  I mentioned On The Beach, but a quick list of others includes Alas Babylon, Earth Abides, A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Postman, The Stand, The Long Tomorrow, Davy…the list is long because it’s such a tempting fantasy, the idea that we can dispense in a stroke with the contemporary world with all its problems and its uncooperative aspects and its stubborn, entrenched people and their privileges and start over.  It’s a desert island fantasy writ large.

Much of the canon is about how human ingenuity, exemplified by a plucky group of very smart survivors, manage to rebuild some semblance of the civilization just lost—only without all the pesky problems, like neurotic people or politicians and usually there are no taxes in sight.  The science fiction approach is on the wresting from the ruin worthwhile components of civilization and setting the stage for doing things right, however one might conceive of right.  Perhaps H.G. Wells was the first to put this view forward in his Shape of Things to Come with his corps of engineers that rebuilds a high-tech civilization in the burnt-out remnants of the old.

The ones that stay with you, though, accept that this is fantasy and that reality never affords opportunity for such neat solutions.  That a collapse like this will be exactly that—a collapse, an end.  Some stories assume humanity can’t survive this final doom.  Most acknowledge that a few will but nothing will be preserved in any recognizable form.

For some this may seem like a thoroughgoing calamity.  For others, justice served.  Mandel—like Walter Miller, like Leigh Brackett, like, recently, Robert Charles Wilson in his Julian Comstock—recognizes that it is simply something that may happen. The question then is “What now?”

So her story is about how that first 20 years might look for a small group of people who are predisposed to preserving stories.

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the Earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled where they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels…most people had settle somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three and you can’t keep walking forever.  After six months of traveling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of the these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop…

The landscape is peppered with the remnants of what came before and a new generation is growing up having never experienced any of it when it worked, only hearing stories of what it had once been like.  One can already see the rough shapes of future myth and lore emerging from the tales the older folks are telling the youngsters.

But over and through all this Mandel is telling stories about how people come to be where they end up and how they take meaning from that.  They all have escaped, in one way or another, from Prospero’s island, only to find themselves, like Viola, washed up on a foreign shore, another island, and having to improvise a new identity to fit a life they never expected to live.

That there is no technological answer to anything in Station Eleven should be no surprise. Mandel’s purposes aren’t there.  She’s not actually rescuing anything.  Nor is she rebuilding.  If anything she’s portraying a kind of evolution.  Start here, with these elements, and run them through those changes.  Where do we end up?

Subsequently she has written a very good novel which happens to be science fiction (as opposed, perhaps, to science fiction which happens to be a good novel) and has laid out a number of intriguing questions for our contemplation.

Shakespeare, for instance, understood irony and tragedy, perhaps from the Greeks who first perfected the form, who built on myths.  What kind of myths might emerge from a tradition based first on Shakespeare?

One of the purposes of stories like this is to dramatize in stark relief something that goes on all the time, namely the replacement of one world with another.  We tend not to experience that way because the changes happen sporadically, cumulatively, resulting in one day appreciating the quaintness of a past that no longer pertains.  But there is no sudden shock of change since the break points are small and myriad and feel “natural.”  Post apocalyptic stories are about that very change, except overnight and all at once.  They all ask the same question, though—if you were washed up on an island, cut off from the world you always knew, what would you wish to find washed up with you?  And what do you think you might be able to rescue from a past you frankly might know very little about, even though you inhabited it as a citizen in good standing?

Of course, while you were fretting about that, life would, as it does, happen, and you would have to deal with it, as always.

Mandel avoids the trap of prescription.  She has no idea how things will turn out.  But she displays a sharp understanding of how people respond to shock.  That and a Shakespearean sense of irony elevates Station Eleven several rungs above the average.

One thought on “Survival, Strategy, and Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: In Review | The Proximal Eye

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