The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game on stage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene. The king stumbled and reached for them as they flitted here and there in the shadows. His name was Arthur Leander. He was fifty-one years old and there were flowers in his hair.
“Dost thou know me?” the actor playing Gloucester asked. “I remember thine eyes well enough,” Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.
Station Eleven begins with the death of Arthur Leander, on stage, mid-performance, from an otherwise unremarkable heart attack. The Shakespearean context of his demise — just before the world collapses beneath a deadly flu pandemic — sets the timbre for the whole book. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with other post-apocalyptic fiction, but this isn’t your typical teen dystopia. You won’t find a gun-toting heroine rushing to save the world within these pages, and there’s no totalitarian regime stepping in to fill the political void with mindless cruelty. Rather, we’re left to examine the desolation and sorrow of a world almost depopulated.
The Travelling Symphony is a mobile theatre troupe, formed in the years after the virus, a small group of survivors performing Shakespeare in any tiny settlement they can find. Together, they create some semblance of hope from their art, in a manner that’s almost Zen: step by step, one moment at a time, there is peace to be found even in the most hopeless times. Without fuel, they can only progress at walking pace, and following the collapse of all infrastructure, desperation can make the world a dangerous place. But the Symphony keeps going, inspired by their motto, a quote taken not from Shakespeare but from Star Trek: survival is insufficient.
The narrative is delivered as a patchwork of scenes: from Arthur’s life before his heart attack; from other lives before and during the flu outbreak; from the travels of the Symphony. As the novel progresses, these seemingly disconnected threads are gradually drawn together, illuminating connections and coincidences which span the years. The eponymous Station Eleven is one such link, a comic book series drawn by Arthur’s ex-wife, and treasured after the flu by Kirsten, who performs with the Symphony and collects newspaper snippets covering Arthur’s life.
This is a meandering, contemplative book that takes its time to consider the fallout of a global disaster, with a thoughtfulness that’s seldom found in a genre so often dominated by fast-paced action-adventure plots. Beautiful and haunting.