I used to suppose it was the lack of chapter divisions that made Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) so difficult to read. Over hundreds of pages, Moll relates dozens of brief episodes from her life. She begins a new story every two or three pages. The reading experience was maddening. I couldn't hold the whole thing in mind. Chapters, I kept telling myself while reading, chapters would solve the problem.
After reading Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven (2014), a post-apocalyptic family drama and National Book Award finalist, I realize I made a mistake about Defoe. It is not the lack of numbered sections that makes Moll Flanders such a tough book, but the brief and episodic nature of the narrative itself. The problem is not episodes, but precisely too-many-brief-episodes. The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) is episodic, but each mini-story lasts long enough for the reader to breathe, and is accompanied by descriptive chapter titles; and we're laughing so hard that it doesn't matter, Dickens can have his way with us. Tom Jones (1749) is another comic episodic novel (or "picaresque"), but the backbone of the journey toward London and Sophia keeps us on track.
While I enjoyed Station Eleven much more than Moll Flanders, it suffers from a similar problem. The 300-odd pages are divided into 9 parts and 55 chapters, some as short as two paragraphs, some ten or more pages. Mandel gives us dozens of named but thinly-described characters (cf. Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy) and leaps back and forth along her timeline: we begin on the night the plague hits North America, jump to "Year 20" in the new disaster-based calendar, then return to three weeks before the night of the plague, then Year 15, then two weeks before the plague, then back to Year 20, then forty years before the plague, then Year 1, etc. It is disorienting, and Mandel further complicates the book with a variety of imaginary manuscripts that supplement the main (omniscient) narrative: the transcript of one survivor interviewing another, two comic books, text messages, graffiti, one character's pre-apocalypse letters and a collected edition in which they are published, various characters' memories. Again, the "found manuscript" device is not itself the problem: Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and Wilkie Collins's Moonstone (1868) use it exceedingly well. But in the context of the thin characters and the back-and-forth timestamps, it seems ill-chosen.
The main problem is that the book is constructed rather than written. In Part 3 Miranda (one of the central characters and the graphic novelist whose work, in a complicated way, advances the story) pastes timelines and important dates from her comics on the walls of her studio; I suspect Mandel did something similar. The story isn't just put together. It is pieced together meticulously, with dates, characters, and seemingly random objects emphasized in close-up; and the seams show. It's a bit like a detective story: you start trying to remember all of the minor details because they may turn up later (the paper in Jeevan's pocket, 189; the three named and immediately abandoned characters on 192). Sometimes this close-up technique works perfectly. Mandel has a remarkable gift for casually ratcheting up the drama. In a line frequently and justly quoted by Goodreads reviewers, she introduces the plague like an afterthought at the conclusion of a chapter: "Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city" (Chapter 2). Glancing at her face in a mirror, another central character alters her smile not just to find a more pleasing effect, but to hide the teeth she has lost through years on the post-plague road (150; this startling example is unfortunately marred by a later allusion in dialogue, 202-3). Nevertheless, too many of the details don't matter, and I couldn't shake the impression that they would. On the other hand, with the help of Google Maps I had no trouble following the characters' local motion, whether the author took us to an island off western Canada, the land just east of Lake Michigan, Toronto, "the territory once known as Virginia," or the Malaysian coast.
The novel begins very well and has several excellent scenes (a dinner party in L.A., a deathbed on the seashore). The finest characters are Miranda, Clark, and the underused, late-lamented Dieter. I didn't care for Kirsten, the Katniss Everdeen-like character who loses several teeth. Arthur Leander, the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, is a disappointment, though his (literal) roles at the beginning and end of the novel generate very good personal and social drama. The villain (like Leander) is an uninteresting religious maniac, but the climactic confrontation is page-turner satisfying. I enjoyed the author's enjoyment of Shakespeare: most prominently King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also (I suspect) The Tempest. Numerous lines are sharp or gorgeous:
She was wearing precarious shoes and carried a dozen shopping bags. (Chapter 38)
He wasn’t specifically sad anymore, but he was aware of death at all times. (Chapter 47)
The weather reports had been full of an approaching snowstorm and he sensed it in the air, in the dove-gray weight of the late-morning sky. (Chapter 53)
The dialogue is mostly convincing:
“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance." (Chapter 24)
"Everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious." (Chapter 26)
The spell fails on several occasions when the dialogue turns expository.
As for theme, the author wisely refrains from resolving the characters' questions about free will and destiny. The villain insists that "everything happens for a reason," but so does Jeevan, an anodyne fellow who gradually approaches moral responsibility:
He placed a pinch of snow on his tongue and thought of making snow ice cream with Frank and their mother when they were small boys — “First you stir in the vanilla” — 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. (Chapter 36)
The final page of the Kindle edition lists several "suggested books," including The Stand, The Road, and King Lear. I don't recommend the tedious Stephen King novel, but McCarthy is a good comparison in scene, theme, and players. And Station Eleven is remarkably free of gore.
- John Wilson and Stan Guthrie discuss the novel in a Books & Culture podcast (link).
- Alexandra Alter's review for the New York Times (link)
- Joshua Rothman, "A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate," New Yorker blog (link)
- Interview with the author by the National Book Foundation (link). "I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we live."