Historically, prestigious prizes like the National Book Award are reserved for realist fiction, or at least historical fiction from a realist angle; and, for many of us, these books can make for dull reading. Thankfully, it appears that the tide is turning towards a wider variety of voices, settings — and genres. Most indicative of this turn is the recent success of Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in October. The winner will be announced on November 19.
“I remember, with my first novel, when it went up for submission in 2006, 2007, there were a lot of rejection letters along the lines of, ‘We really like it, but we’re not sure how we market it,'” Mandel told Flavorwire last week. “And that has to do with the genre question. Because it was literary fiction, but it was also a detective novel.” She suggests that the literary world is more open to the blurring borders between genres than in years past. “I think we’ve entered into a much more inclusive moment. It feels as though novels that are both [literary and genre works] are desirable these days.”
In person, Mandel comes across as calm, composed, and graceful — like her writing. Her background is in contemporary dance, a talent that obviously permeates her sense of performance, movement, speech, and, most obviously, her prose. She says she didn’t set out to write a post-apocalyptic novel — her first three novels (Last Night in Montreal, Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet) were categorized as detective fiction or, in France, as thrillers.
With Station Eleven, she wanted to write something different, something that wouldn’t pigeonhole her as a crime writer. “What I was trying to do was write literary fiction, but with the strongest possible narrative drive. An unexpected side effect of that is that it can push you into the edge of genre,” she says. “I found myself wanting to write a love letter to the modern world. And one way to do that, one way to write about something, is to write about its absence.”
The end result of that exercise was, of course, a post-apocalyptic world. Station Eleven begins with an actor, Arthur Leander, on stage in the midst of performing Shakespeare’s King Lear. Arthur will die from a heart attack by the end of the evening; the rest of the world won’t last three weeks before a deadly flu strain eradicates 99 percent of the population.
Station Eleven comic, drawn by Nathan Burton
The novel jumps around in time and place, detailing Arthur’s many marriages and acquaintances. Miranda, his first wife, created Station Eleven, the titular comic book that anchors the novel’s plot. Jeevan, a paramedic who tries to save Arthur’s life, watches from a boarded-up apartment as the world outside crumbles into nothing. Kirsten, a child actor who’s in King Lear with Arthur, roams post-apocalyptic America in a traveling theater group.
The novel’s structure is extremely complex — Mandel gives voice to many minor characters — but it’s stitched together seamlessly by the emotional lives of her characters and the binding power of certain material objects. To celebrate the extraordinary place and time we live in now, Mandel took away the phenomenal things we take for granted, to the extent that we almost don’t see them anymore: airplanes, running water, trash disposals, antibiotics.
All those things vanish in the course of the novel, their upkeep impossible without the massive, complicated infrastructure that had been relentlessly maintained by the nearly seven billion people who mostly perish from the flu that sweeps the planet.
Mandel spends seven paragraphs detailing what was lost: no more pharmaceuticals, no more countries, no more fire departments or police, no more gasoline after it goes stale, which takes two years. This bravura litany is the most dramatic moment in the novel, but the emotional climax comes when a man, 101 days after the end of civilization, stumbles into one of the haphazard towns that spring up here and there, and collapses in tears. When the townspeople ask him why he’s crying, he replies, “I’d thought I was the only one.”
It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking moment, for without the methods of communication we’re used to today, how could you possibly know that you weren’t the last person alive if, for 100 days, you never saw another living soul? “Hell is the absence of the people you long for,” Mandel writes.
Moments like these set Mandel’s book a cut above the typical speculative or science fiction novel. Whereas pure genre fiction sets out to illustrate a world with characters, ideas, and themes crafted around and in support of an obvious premise, Mandel’s novel begins with the idea of love for the modern world, and uses the apocalypse and its effects to express that love.
This love for the modern world resonates through simple objects — a paperweight, the aforementioned comic book — that gain in value over the course of Station Eleven. “I was thinking about the secret lives that the objects around us have led, before we see them,” she said. In the novel, these objects bear their emotional significance as ties to the pre-apocalyptic world, when a paperweight and a comic book were typical, unassuming items on a desk or a shelf. It’s these small, worldly things that Mandel seems to want the reader to focus on. Small conveniences we make use of without a second thought become extraordinary after nearly everything is lost. They carry the memory of a better world, and though it’s hard to see, it’s the world we live in today.