A Literary Feast -- Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Preface: Although I have intended to utilize this blog to discuss the role of food in any book I read, and not limit it to literature where food plays a more dominant role, let it be stated that post-apocalyptic books may not be the best place to look for meal plans in a modern world.

Not typically drawn to the post-apocalyptic /dystopian genre, I was skeptical about reading Station Eleven. Every Facebook quiz I have taken on surviving an apocalypse has clocked me at an approximately 90 minute lifespan. Hunter and fighter I am not. The synopsis did not inspire me: a traveling symphony, attempting to revive culture in a barren post-apocalyptic world. Meh. The one thing going for it, in my opinion, was the glowing front cover recommendation by Erin Morgenstern. My thoughts were that if this book contains just a smidgen of the magic of The Night Circus, it’s worth a read.

Marketing wins again! I am so glad that I gave it a chance. Like the magical worlds in The Night Circus, life on earth in Station Eleven is held together by gossamer-thin threads. Some only survive. Others, like the curator, the librarian, and the Symphony, realize that survival is not enough. In fact, the Traveling Symphony has these very words emblazoned on the side of their caravan: “Because survival is insufficient,” a line they have pulled from the show Star Trek, which not every member of the company remembers. We join the Symphony in Year 20 of the post-apocalyptic world– twenty years after a flu with a scary fast incubation period has wiped out almost all of the earth’s human population. (Animals are not mentioned much in the book and I assume that the disease was not cross-transmitted. However, dogs seem to be scarce. I assume this is because they are mainly domesticated and humans suddenly were not? I’d love to hear some postulations on this. Perhaps I don’t want to know the answer. I’m happy they aren’t listed on my grocery list.)

My first thought after reading the cause of human annihilation was “ebola.” When was this book published? Didn’t Americans just have their first “real” scare at the hands of a quickly deadly disease? On further reflection, I doubt it was the inspiration for this particular book. Station Eleven was published in 2014. The Ebola outbreak began in West Africa in March of 2014 and didn’t reach the U.S. until September, 2014. Unless the author is even more of a phenom than I already give her credit for (hey, she’s a year younger than I am and looks like a baby in her head shot!), I’m sure the book was already in progress or completed by the time Ebola hit the headlines. The notion of a pandemic is nothing close to original, of course. Stephen King’s The Stand comes to mind, and I’m sure we could list many others. As a healthcare worker, I believe the credulousness of this scenario, as well as feel assured that I would most likely be one of the first to go, ha! Our world is so small these days, due to mass transit and communications– it truly is a global community, while our local sense of community suffers. That equation reverses in such a post-apocalyptic setting. One thing that struck me, here in Year 20, was the largeness of the world again. Travel is once again limited to walking and horses. Virginia seems as far from Michigan as it would now from Malaysia. Oh, travel. That is the thing I think I would think about most, were I to survive a similar pandemic. All the foreign, beautiful, exotic places in the world that I know exist, but would never again have opportunity to see. I need to plan another vacation…

And maybe eat out. Coming up short here for easy meal plans. Here is the grocery list of Station Eleven:

water, tuna, beans, soup, pasta, frozen meat, vegetables, fruit, oranges, lemons, tea, coffee, crackers, salt, preserved cakes, squirrel on a stick, rabbits, deer, rabbit jerky, dried apples, cocktail olives, fish, ground meat and tortilla chips and cheese with sauces splashed over it, Skymiles Lounge oranges and snack mix, roasted venison, Tabasco sauce, tins of tomatoes, bags of rice, deer, boar, rabbits, bread, preserved meat, scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwich, raspberry dark-chocolate truffles.

The story line flits between “before the flu,” “at the time of the crisis,” and “Year 20.” Reading the list above, I’m sure you can determine which part of the timeline each food belongs to. Some of the list looks like the contents of my pantry anyway. Other items (boar? squirrel on a stick?) will never make it to my table, unless, of course, I have seriously misremembered the menus of the Gilmore girls Friday night dinners. Those will make for some very interesting blog posts. I think my favorite food mention in the book is the ransacking of the airport Mexican restaurant (ground meat and tortilla chips and cheese with sauces splashed over it). In these early days, many survivors are still hesitant to “steal” from others, even from abandoned businesses. One man grandly places his credit card beside the quiet cash register and states that he will cover all of the expenses. The card sits there for months, until the curator claims it for his burgeoning Museum of Civilization.

There is a passage that both delights and baffles me. The panic has hit national U.S. headlines while one survivor is still airborne. His plane is diverted to a small, insignificant airport. As he enters the airport, he sees many grounded international flights, as well as clusters of people around the television sets. Here are his thoughts: “Clark decided that whatever they were looking at, he couldn’t face it without a cup of tea. He assumed it was a terrorist attack. He bought a cup of Earl Grey at a kiosk, and took his time adding the milk. This is the last time I’ll stir milk into my tea without knowing what happened, he thought, wistful in advance for the present moment, and went to stand with the crowd beneath a television that was tuned to CNN.” I had the privilege of discussing this book at my wonderful book club before writing this review, and posed the question, “How could he possibly have had both the restraint and the presence of mind to savor that moment and delay his knowledge of the inevitable?” My friend from the UK immediately responded, “But, of course– he’s British. It makes perfect sense. We can handle anything after a cup of tea.” (My book club really is unsurpassed. If you are ever in the Austin area, please join us!) We all agreed at the end of this discussion that this book is one to be reread. There are so many layers and connections that would be all the richer and more detailed with further readings.

I haven’t even talked about King Lear! It is one of the threads of the book, and far more symbolic, I’m sure, than I caught on to, as it’s been 10+ years since I read it. Perhaps I’ll write an addendum to this review, after I’ve reread King Lear and Station Eleven. Both are worth the time. By setting the story 20 years after the pandemic, Robuck has painted a picture of a relatively peaceful world, rather than focusing on the violence and manic survival measures so often portrayed in post-apocalyptic novels. Don’t get me wrong, the struggles are there, the violence still manifests itself, and I didn’t wish for a moment that I could witness this world. But there is also hope; there is music, there is theatre, there is community, and there are people figuring out what it means to be human all over again. It causes one to come away from it thinking more closely about the things we cherish and spend our time and money on. We may not have to hunt or fish for every meal or pack our weapons for a 10 mile trip, but all the same, we survive in this world. We work, we cook, we pay mortgages and student loans; at times we feel as if we can barely keep our heads above water. It falls to us as well to say, Survival is insufficient. 

Life is fleeting. Love your people. Be present. Do good in the world. Namaste.

In other news, we had our first family Friday Night Dinner tonight, from the pilot episode of Gilmore girls! An overall success for a first attempt. Maybe I’ll actually invite other people to it next time. I’ll be writing up that post shortly, so check back soon!