Station Eleven

Title: Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Read In: 2022


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Station Eleven: A novel

Mandel, Emily St. John


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The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour, And for me, now as then, it is too much. There is too much world. —Czeslaw Milosz The Separate Notebooks

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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survival is insufficient.

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Kirsten stood in the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest.

3. I Prefer You With a Crown

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Not merely pretty, he decides. She is actually beautiful, but it’s a subtle kind of beauty that takes some time to make itself apparent. She is the opposite of the L.A. girls with their blond hair and tight T-shirts and tans.

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“I know it’s temporary.” But this is her secret: she doesn’t want it to end. What she can never tell Pablo, because he disdains all things corporate, is that she likes being at Neptune Logistics more than she likes being at home. Home is a small dark apartment with an ever-growing population of dust bunnies, the hallway narrowed by Pablo’s canvases propped up against the walls, an easel blocking the lower half of the living room window. Her workspace at Neptune Logistics is all clean lines and recessed lighting. She works on her never-ending project for hours at a time. In art school they talked about day jobs in tones of horror. She never would have imagined that her day job would be the calmest and least cluttered part of her life.

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They are always waiting, the people of the Undersea. They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.

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“You’re always half on Station Eleven,” Pablo said during a fight a week or so ago, “and I don’t even understand your project. What are you actually going for here?” He has no interest in comics. He doesn’t understand the difference between serious graphic novels and Saturday-morning cartoons with wide-eyed tweetybirds and floppy-limbed cats. When sober, he suggests that she’s squandering her talent. When drunk, he implies that there isn’t much there to squander, although later he apologizes for this and sometimes cries. It’s been a year and two months since he sold his last painting. She started to explain her project to him again but the words stopped in her throat. “You don’t have to understand it,” she said. “It’s mine.”

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She is beautiful in a way that makes people forget what they were going to say when they look at her. She is very soft-spoken. People are forever leaning in close to hear what she’s saying.

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She’s seated at the opposite end of the table from Arthur, and she somehow can’t quite manage to catch his eye. He’s talking to everyone except her. No one seems to have noticed that Miranda’s saying very little. “I wish you’d try a little harder,” Arthur has said to her once or twice, but she knows she’ll never belong here no matter how hard she tries. These are not her people. She is marooned on a strange planet. The best she can do is pretend to be unflappable when she isn’t.

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She hasn’t smoked in a while, managed to convince herself that smoking is disgusting, but it’s a pleasure, actually, more of a pleasure than she remembered. The lit end flares in the darkness when she inhales. She likes Hollywood best at night, in the quiet, when it’s all dark leaves and shadows and night-blooming flowers, the edges softened, gently lit streets curving up into the hills.

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“Why’s Elizabeth Colton’s car still in the driveway?” “Because she’s a raging alcoholic,” Miranda says. His eyes widen. “Really?” “She’s too wasted to drive. You didn’t hear that from me.” “Sure. No. Thank you.” “You’re welcome. You people live for that kind of gossip, don’t you?” “No,” he says, “I live on that kind of gossip, actually. As in, it pays my rent. What I live for is something different.” “What do you live for?” “Truth and beauty,” he says, deadpan.

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“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.”

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In three months Miranda and Arthur will sit in a conference room with their lawyers to work out the final terms of their divorce settlement while the paparazzi smoke cigarettes on the sidewalk outside, while Elizabeth packs to move into the house with the crescent-moon light by the pool. In four months Miranda will be back in Toronto, divorced at twenty-seven, working on a commerce degree, spending her alimony on expensive clothing and consultations with stylists because she’s come to understand that clothes are armor; she will call Leon Prevant to ask about employment and a week later she’ll be back at Neptune Logistics, in a more interesting job now, working under Leon in Client Relations, rising rapidly through the company until she comes to a point after four or five years when she travels almost constantly between a dozen countries and lives mostly out of a carry-on suitcase, a time when she lives a life that feels like freedom and sleeps with her downstairs neighbor occasionally but refuses to date anyone, whispers “I repent nothing” into the mirrors of a hundred hotel rooms from London to Singapore and in the morning puts on the clothes that make her invincible, a life where the moments of emptiness and disappointment are minimal, where by her midthirties she feels competent and at last more or less at ease in the world, studying foreign languages in first-class lounges and traveling in comfortable seats across oceans, meeting with clients and living her job, breathing her job, until she isn’t sure where she stops and her job begins, almost always loves her life but is often lonely, draws the stories of Station Eleven in hotel rooms at night.

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“You remembered.” “Of course,” Clark said. “That’s one thing I like about birthdays, they stay in one place. Same spot on the calendar, year in, year out.”

4. The Starship

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“Yes,” Kirsten said, “I’m aware of your opinion on the subject, but it remains my favorite line of text in the world.” She considered Dieter one of her dearest friends. The tattoo argument had lost all of its sting over the years and had become something like a familiar room where they met.

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Hell is the absence of the people you long for.

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“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance.”

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But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think—this will maybe sound weird—it’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.” “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I quite—” “I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.” “You don’t think he likes his job, then.” “Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

5. Toronto

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First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.

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Frank standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together.

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He came upon other travelers sometimes, but so few. Almost everyone was moving south.

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This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air. Finally whispering the same two words over and over: “Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking.” He looked up and met the eyes of an owl, watching him from a snow-laden branch.

6. The Airplanes

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No one had any idea, it turned out. None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended.

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She had been overtipping for as long as she’d had money. These small compensations for how fortunate she’d been.

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He lifted his mug, blew on the surface of his tea, and returned the mug very deliberately to the table. There was a studied quality to the movement, and Miranda had an odd impression that he was performing a scene.

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Clark had decided to also notify the ex-wives, even the most recent one whom he didn’t like very much, because it seemed wrong to let them read about it in the newspaper; he had an idea—too sentimental to speak aloud and he knew none of his divorced friends would ever own up to it—that something must linger, a half-life of marriage, some sense memory of love even if obviously not the thing itself. He thought these people must mean something to one another, even if they didn’t like one another anymore.

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She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.

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She wanted to speak to him, but speaking would take too much strength, so she looked at him instead—I see you, I see you—and hoped this was enough.

7. The Terminal

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Robert in the mornings: he liked to read a novel while he ate breakfast. It was possibly the most civilized habit Clark had ever encountered.

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What happened here was something like prayer.

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he’d harbored a secret pleasure in the thought that the world was waking up.

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walking alone for a hundred miles, whispering French to herself because all the horror in her life had transpired in English and she thought switching languages might save her,

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Even after all these years there were moments when he was overcome by his good fortune at having found this place, this tranquility, this woman, at having lived to see a time worth living in.

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Jeevan filled a pipe with tobacco from his shirt pocket, a soothing ritual. Trying to think of nothing but the stars and the sound of the river,

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He’d been spending more time in the past lately. He liked to close his eyes and let his memories overtake him. A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films:

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He woke to quiet voices. This had been happening more and more lately, this nodding off unexpectedly, and it left him with an unsettled intimation of rehearsal. You fall asleep for short periods and then for longer periods and then forever.

8. The Prophet

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Still, writing a play was an interesting idea. She began writing the first act on the shore the next morning, but never got past the first line of the opening monologue, which she’d envisioned as a letter: “Dear friends, I find myself immeasurably weary and I have gone to rest in the forest.” She was distracted just then by a seagull, descending near her feet. It pecked at something in the rocks, and this was when she heard Dieter, approaching from the Symphony encampment with two chipped mugs of the substance that passed for coffee in the new world. “What were you writing?” he asked. “A play,” she said. She folded the paper. He smiled. “Well, I look forward to reading it.” She thought of the opening monologue often in the months that followed, weighing those first words like coins or pebbles turned over and over in a pocket, but she was unable to come up with the next sentence. The monologue remained a fragment, stuffed deep in her backpack until the day, eleven months later, when the Symphony unearthed it in the hours after the clarinet was seized by the prophet’s men and wondered if they were looking at a suicide note.

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She tried to concentrate on the sound, but music had always unmoored her, and her thoughts drifted.

9. Station Eleven

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He closed the fridge door, made his last breakfast—scrambled eggs—and showered, dressed, combed his hair, left for the theater an hour early so he’d have time to linger with a newspaper over his second-to-last coffee at his favorite coffee place, all of the small details that comprise a morning, a life.

Reading Group Guide

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SUGGESTED READING Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood The Passage by Justin Cronin The Dog Stars by Peter Heller The Stand by Stephen King The Road by Cormac McCarthy Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell King Lear by William Shakespeare A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley