BOOK REVIEW: Eric Hartlep takes on Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven”


Station Eleven is a new book by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is a new book by Emily St. John Mandel

This guest commentary features a review of the Boyne District Library’s “One Book, One Community—Boyne Reads 2015” book Station Eleven.
The Boyne District Library is in partnership with the Michigan Humanities Council which chose the book Station Eleven for its biennial Great Michigan Read program.

The book was written by Emily St. John Mandel and the review was written by Eric Hartlep of Seattle, Wash., who was born in Petoskey and has family in Boyne City including Pat Hartlep, who is a member of a book club at the Boyne District Library. Pat sent Eric his copy of Station Eleven.



Eric Hartlep
Eric Hartlep

Using Shakespeare’s plays as a main element in any work of modern fiction is a gutsy and dangerous undertaking, because misuse of such hallowed material can expose an author’s lack of knowledge, or come off as pretentious, or as an attempt to ride the coattails of the great to make up for one’s own lack of imagination.

But, Emily St. John Mandel not only avoids all those pitfalls, she successfully makes Shakespearian plays and dialogue integral to the plot of Station Eleven, uses them as mirrors to illuminate the lives and trials of her characters, and to plumb the depths of their psyches—all with skill and panache.


Further, she uses the classic themes from King Lear and other Shakespearian work to show that a modern literary form—the graphic novel—deserves serious consideration, even nestled within the pages of a novel of the post-apocalyptic Earth.

Forms within forms within forms, stitched together in a seamless and flowing whole—really quite remarkable.

The book is set in Michigan, for the most part, with Petoskey, East Jordan and Traverse City prominently mentioned.

Add to this an amazing ability to really get into the minds, desires, foibles and worries of a wide range of characters—from a child actor seeing a man die on stage, to that man himself, as he ages and goes through a series of wives—all done not just convincingly but astonishingly so, especially in the case of Arthur Leander.

For a young writer to lay out the inner demons of an old actor on the verge of death, saddled with ego, remorse, self-loathing and still make him vulnerable and someone you feel compassion for shows the depth of her human understanding and her skills as a writer.

Even the inevitable center of evil in the book, The Prophet, though initially held up as a one-dimensional bogey man—to engage the reader’s own willingness to concentrate evil in stereotypes for our own comfort?—is finally broadened and deepened, humanized so that readers gain rather than narrow their perspective in the process.

Miranda, Arthur’s first wife and the author of the central graphic novel, is wonderfully complex, and her work goes forward in time long after she is dead, affecting those remaining alive after the plague, much as Shakespeare’s works have lived beyond him through his own time of plague and global decay.

Kirsten Raymonde, the child actress, begins as a child ghost on stage in Lear, then seemingly lives backward through her life, from a time of technological plenty, to a world mirroring the Dark Ages.

Mandel’s language starts out divided: it is sumptuous and deep when her narrative is from pre-plague times; it becomes spare and brusque in describing the crushed and flattened post-apocalyptic landscape.

At first I thought she was simply more comfortable writing about contemporary theater and artists than about imagined scenes from a plague-infested, bestial world.

But, as the book progressed, these differing tones, each with distinct levels of diction and specificity of description, tapered closer and closer to one another, not quite, but nearly, merging in the end.

I would like to ask her if this merging happened as a natural part of the writing process, or if she intentionally used different writing styles at the outset, to set the necessarily different moods, delineate the two worlds, and thus have specific effects on the reader.

Finally, is it even necessary to try to put Station Eleven into any specific genre of fiction? I don’t think so.

It is not science fiction, and not really fantasy, either, though it has elements of both, built on a spine of classic literature and certainly on what is often called modern “realistic” fiction. Because, who among us will think that what her book depicts is far fetched enough to be pushed outside the gates of accepted realism?

I doubt anyone will.

This is not a criticism; if anything, it is a recognition that the boundaries between realistic, fantasy and science fiction—in this age of wonders and horrors, be they technological, political, medical or religious—should be forever dissolved.

The ending of the book, which I like to think of as the soft landing variety, may not be sufficiently hard-hitting for some dedicated readers of end-of-the-world writing.

But, do we need one more big explosion at the end of yet another dire book to re-enforce the grim nature of our age?

Or, is it better to leave a little hope intact, so that what the book asks us to think about concerning humanity is given more importance than a canned, definitive finish to our existence as a species?