Hilary M. Schor
The end of inquiry is no longer to make wonder stop, but to let it begin.
—Lorraine Daston, “Wonder and the End of Inquiry”
It is possible to survive all this but not unaltered.
—Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Well, it’s nice that at least the celebrity gossip survived.
—Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Who doesn’t want to know how the world ends? A bang, a whimper, a flare of light, the growing cold. Meteors hurtle toward us, zombies attack us, we huddle once again by the campfire, but now grounded airplanes shimmer in the dark. Perhaps. But this is not an essay about the end of the world; rather, it is an essay about the beginning of a new form of curiosity, the reformulation of the central terms of the present volume. My primary text offers a particularly beautiful meditation on the end of the world as we know it. For in that fictional universe, as Emily St. John Mandel imagines it, “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” For her, as for me, curiosity itself becomes an object of inquiry around which readers and characters alike circle:
Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheek-bone half-erased by candlelight. The audience is silent. Sayid, circling her in a tuxedo that Kirsten found in a dead man’s closet near the town of East Jordan: “Tarry, rash wanton. Am I not thy lord?”1
Here, at our introduction to the new world of Station Eleven, more than just the town is “mysteriously named.” Shakespeare has somehow survived; a woman with close-cropped hair has been scarred and transformed by candlelight, and we, like the audience, wait in silence. If the novel is to be more than a dead man’s closet (and I believe it is), it, too, must tarry like a wanton, wandering and standing still at the same moment, ever curious.
Hence the question with which I must begin: What does curiosity have to do with the novel? To ask this question is immediately to fall into disreputable company, for no less a critic than E. M. Forster, in his justly famous Aspects of the Novel, scorned the curious reader as an idiot who asks only “And then? And then?”2 And yet, without readerly curiosity, would anyone ever read a novel? For by curiosity, I do not mean merely what happened when and to whom. Rather, I take curiosity to be a world-building activity, one that catches readers in its grip. This sense of curiosity as a force that creates as well as interrogates reality, tying the world of the novel to that of the reader, has increasingly informed cultural criticism. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park brilliantly expose the ways curiosity went from being a sin, a form of speculative spying that should belong only to God, to forming the roots of scientific inquiry.3 Critics such as John Eisner, Mieke Bal, and Jean Baudrillard have re-limned the “culture of collecting”;4 Susan Stewart in On Longing has moved from Freud to Derrida to Bakhtin, reanimating “the secret life of things.”5 That secret life is the heart of the novel, a genre that grows up alongside virtuosi, Wunderkammern, micrography, and dollhouses. Without curiosity, no fiction; and in turn, every act of curiosity involves some act of fiction, some extension of the here and now into the “might have been” and “what if,” a cloth-bound perspective box. As we look at the world, we are aware of ourselves looking at it, but to be curious is also to be committed to imagining another world, or at least worldview. If a “fiction” is literally a made thing (fingere: to form, to contrive), so too is curiosity (cura: to care, to cure, to be careful, to be odd and to look at oddities), and both unfold in time as well as space. Yet curiosity is not a way of seeing that unfolds entirely of our own making; it requires that we take a step backward and let the world work on us. Curiosity is a way of keeping the story going into the future.
As I turn to Mandel’s version of curiosity, the curiosity at the end of the world (a world that may in fact have no future), my view grows out of my understanding of curiosity as a narrative mode deeply tied to the rise of feminism. In Curious Subjects: Women and the Trials of Realism,6 I argue that the curious heroine serves as a kind of experimental thermometer for the novel, going beyond what her culture told her she needed to know, moving from the confines of the home and the marriage plot into the wider world. Starting with John Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost, the heroine’s quest for knowledge shaped the novel as a genre and kept it fluent as culture changed. The novel is the definitive modern genre because it can incorporate not only new facts but new ways of organizing knowledge. It does not merely tell us stories, it prepares us to take the measure of the world. But if curiosity, women, and the novel were inseparably bound together at the rise of the novel, what has happened since then—and what will happen next? How will the novel stay curious; how will it again teach us how to be curious, when the world as we know it comes to an end?
The question is less odd than it seems. The novel is the cockroach of literary genres in part because it thrives at moments of cultural crisis. When the novel emerged from earlier forms of fiction, particularly the “romance,” with its surreal heroes and heroines, it did so, as its name suggests, by purveying the news, or by making the “news” fictional.7 The earliest novels in the English tradition were romans-à-clef, skirting libel laws by providing readers with the very choicest gossip in a variety of narrative forms: the epistolary novel, updated travel stories, current affairs of the court rendered by skeptical but eager narrators. All of these genres began by removing readers from what we might now call their “comfort zones.” In a society where many were rising, so was the novel. Only gradually did the novel put its feet more firmly on the ground, introducing us to characters more like us: Robinson Crusoe, Pamela Andrews, Tom Jones, even the more bizarrely named Tristram Shandy. We can trust that no activity will be performed by these characters that we could not perform ourselves. No supernatural beings will intervene on their behalf, and they will walk in a world recognizably our own.
Yet despite this grounding in the real world, the novel traffics in new kinds of information and trains its heroine to recognize and interrogate new forms of knowledge. When “a young female . . . makes . . . her first appearance upon the great and busy stage of life, with a virtuous mind, a cultivated understanding, and a feeling heart,” as Frances Burney puts it, “her ignorance of the forms, and inexperience in the manners, of the world” also make for a great adventure.8 To sort this new world, the heroine needs a kind of operational manual, and yet the guidebook to wonderland is never enough. As Evelina, Clarissa, Pamela, Justine, all encounter the world, they discover its rules, but they also prove themselves the exception. The novel flaunts its role as both conduct book and lab experiment, serving at one and the same time as a useful collection of maxims and a subversive prompt book for puckish bad students.
The nineteenth-century novel wonders something else and it walks down very different streets. So curious is the would-be Victorian novelist that he will venture beyond the limits of what has passed for knowledge even in these “novels of the present day.” Charting an unknown territory, the novelist begins to wander like a “traveller in the poor man’s country,” as William Makepeace Thackeray put it.9 This is a world, as Thackeray says, available to anyone willing to walk out his own front door. But most readers were not, and for them, there were always novels, particularly once Dickens took up his pen in the late 1830s. In the world of Charles Dickens, collections of curiosities abound, both in the form of strange objects and in inquiring characters. Dickens is clever enough to play with our interest in his sources: his prefaces revel in “real life” examples of phenomena he presents (collapsing houses, spontaneous combustion, governmental bureaucracies that inspired the Barnacles) and the pages draw us not into some teeming mass of “outcast London” but into particularized worlds curated by decidedly idiosyncratic speakers, each at home on his corner or in her alleyway, offering us far more information about their lives (and far more backstory hidden away till a suitable moment of revelation) than we could have thought possible.
Indeed, Dickens, that “special correspondent for posterity,”10 was there before even Henry Mayhew, the intrepid author of London Labour and the London Poor, perhaps the greatest compendium of nineteenth-century daily life.11 In Mayhew’s four overstuffed volumes, the materials of Victorian life abound: the trinkets found by the Thames mudlarks; the dog dung collected by “pure-finders,” both the high-price ones, who are paid to clean out kennels, and the scavengers who scour the streets; the whirling words and priceless patter of the ballad hawkers, rivaling the telegraph in their speed in bringing the news to market; the girls yearning for sprats, girls not educated but canny, aware, and alert. What the novel adds to Mayhew’s compelling inquiry is a plot: Dickens doesn’t just continue to seek out new ways of interrogating the world, incorporating the anonymous interviewer who disappears silently into his investigations, but integrates our curious gaze with the fortunes of the plucky heroine who moves beyond her sphere and acts as a social investigator, entering the homes and hearts of the poor. In novels like Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and Hard Times, the heroines go beyond their assigned spheres, but the kind of “homework” they carry out transforms readers’ hearts and heads, or so the theory of the realist novel at midcentury would argue. These texts take the curious heroine on a wandering path, carrying us far beyond the narrow walls of the miserable, lonely, cranky self.
The novel has in short always done double work: at once making the world familiar and estranging us from it, teaching us to see and giving us a sentimental education, offering us a coherent plot through which to organize the things and people we encounter, but also setting us a little off-balance as it takes us somewhere “new” and newsworthy. But if the eighteenth-century novel was a manual of conduct, telling the ambitious heroine how to behave as she aspired to a new social position, and the nineteenth-century novel brought us a museum, a wonder-house of previously unknown objects in a previously unknown world (Sprats! Pure-finders! Statistics and stutterings!), what happens when the world is emptied of people, when objects are no longer recognizable, when the world, as we know it, comes to an end? What kind of curious readers and curious heroines will be possible at the end of the world?
This is the question Emily St. John Mandel takes up in her Station Eleven, a novel that begins in the world as we know it and turns that world into the world of before and after, killing off not only 99.9 percent of the population but all the statisticians prepared to tell us about it. Following a massive outbreak of the beautifully named “Georgian flu,” “civilization [is] an archipelago of small towns [that] had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm” (48). The novel, too, must find new ways of surviving against the odds, “holding together into the calm.” After an event that shatters the conventional multiplot novel, disrupting entirely the relationships of people, objects, and plot on which the novel also depended, Mandel needs a form of curiosity that will meld time frames, that will create networks without familiar webs, that can see the world in a snow globe—and she needs a very different form of the novel to depict it. While in some ways she stays true to my model of curiosity, continuing to focus on a single heroine whom we meet at the end of civilization and follow until the lights come back on (perhaps) at the end, she disrupts our idea of curiosity as well, making both readers and characters archeologists of the everyday. For, as Lorraine Daston once promised of the modern world, “The end of inquiry is no longer to make wonder stop, but to let it begin.”
For that reason, the disruption of all we think we know, Station Eleven begins not with the plague but with a play, in a confetti of fake snow, on the stage of a Toronto theater, where King Lear is raging against the storm, as the three young actresses who played the younger versions of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia once again sit on stage, playing a clapping game. The actor playing Lear, Arthur Leander, suffers a heart attack and reaches out blindly, striking the stage set as he misjudges his relationship to objects, dying in character but in a line from elsewhere in the play. “The wren goes to’t,” mutters Lear, and “Jeevan, who knew the play very well, realize[s] that the actor had skipped back twelve lines” (3). The curtain comes down abruptly, and Jeevan Chaudary, a former paparazzo turned entertainment reporter, now a trainee EMT, who has leapt onto the stage to try to resuscitate Arthur, finds himself in the uncanny space of the now bright-lit stage. “Not quite a room,” he thinks, “too transitory, all those doorways and dark spaces between wings, the missing ceiling” (5). In a play on words that will echo throughout the novel, “It was more like a terminal, he thought, a train station or an airport, everyone passing quickly through.” But he waits in the artificial light, comforting a child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, who played one of the daughters. The actors scatter, a few remaining, while the body is removed, and Jeevan walks away from the plastic snow into a real snowstorm in Toronto and, as he enters the park in the cold night, into the coming plague. While he has been in the theater, the Georgian flu has come to North America, and the disease is beginning to devastate the world. Or so we learn almost casually, as we return briefly to the theater, where the stage manager, Edgar, Gloucester, a makeup artist, Goneril, and an executive producer who had been in the audience, remain at the theater bar, toasting Arthur: “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” (15).
All of them dead, the last of them three weeks later on the road out of the city. What to do? As Jeevan learns of the flu, he takes his lessons from his literary training. “Jeevan’s understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but, on the other hand he’d seen a lot of action movies” (21). Fiction, even if lowbrow fiction, comes through. He knows to buy lots of water, canned goods, toilet paper; only on his last trip to the late-night grocery store does he buy flowers. That is all that happens. Or more precisely, there are two things that do not happen at the beginning of the novel: we do not see anyone die of the flu, and we do not hear from a single medical expert or textbook or talking head. Such information as we have in the moment of urgency is disseminated from Jeevan’s best friend, Hua, an emergency room doctor who calls to warn him: “You remember the SARS epidemic? . . . You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic. We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since the morning[,] . . . a hundred and sixty in the past three hours. . . . You get exposed to this, you’re sick within hours” (18, 20). We hear Hua begin to cough, we see some people expressing vague alarm on the television, and then we huddle with Jeevan in an apartment with his crippled brother, as his brother ghostwrites the autobiography of a celebrity philanthropist whose name he has vowed to protect (and he does). And we also see the ramifications of the death of Arthur Leander, the King who died onstage (“the wren goes to’t”), as Arthur’s lawyer calls his best friend and his best friend calls his ex-wives. All these characters are briefly gathered into “an incident,” Arthur’s death, the same characters whom the rest of the novel will attempt to reconnect. Later in the novel we will return to that quiet Toronto apartment and watch the lights go out and the TV stations shut down; we will learn that if you got sick, you were dead in forty-eight hours; we will watch, in keeping with the tradition of the novel, the end of “the news”—both the turning-off, forever, of the cameras, and the web, and the grid, and the end of anything happening but chaos. But now we watch the end of the world we recognize. As Mandel puts it in the short chapter that ends part 1 of the novel:
AN INCOMPLETE LIST:
No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by. (31)
The lists go on, until the chapter ends, and with it the first section of the book:
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, places to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars. (32)
And with that (Why no more avatars? Why is that the last line?) the old world ends.
Or does it? Jeevan Chaudary’s immediate thought had been that “this illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life” (20). And in some ways that is true. The novel will pick up twenty years after that first night, and so many things will fall into the “no more” list. We are no longer in Jeevan’s presence, no longer in the comforting space of a Toronto theater; instead, we are on the road with a group of musicians and actors, the “Traveling Symphony,” in a caravan made up of repurposed pick-up trucks (all the automotive parts, those that needed fuel, are long gone), and only when we find Kirsten Raymonde, no longer a child but still an actress, do we know where we are:
‘Enter Lear,’ Kirsten said. Twenty years earlier, in a life she mostly couldn’t remember, she had had a small nonspeaking role in a short-lived Toronto production of King Lear. Now she walked in sandals whose soles had been cut from an automobile tire, three knives in her belt. (35)
We are not used to “short-lived” being quite so literal, and it is with that hanging over us that we hear Kirsten continue, “Mad. . . . Fantastically dressed with wild flowers” (35). And if we, like Jeevan, are aficionados of disaster, in our case fictional dystopias, we are fairly certain what we will read next: a short while down the road, we will stop exactly long enough for someone to tell us the story of “what went wrong.” Exposition will briefly disrupt (or not so briefly, given the chattiness of such expository blowhards) the forward motion into more disaster, and then the talking will stop and we will get on with the apocalypse. Zombies will come, or violent refugees, or peaceful survivors lighting matches against the darkness, or canny peddlers, trading in news and sexual favors. (Yes, you read that novel, too.) Utopian novels, for what it is worth, follow a similar pattern: a resident of our world magically awakens in another world, wonders just how everyone became so peace-loving and well-fed, and The Oldest Inhabitant is dragged out to retell the founding story. We were violent; the world ended; we began again. Welcome to our paradise—and please, feel free to share our women! Dystopic or utopic, the future has a tendency to talk at us for a while and then get back to being the future.12
That is not what happens here. Everything in this world has changed, and yet the world remains hauntingly familiar. This is still the world of realism with which I began. We still live in a world of ordinary people (no zombies will emerge in this apocalypse, nor any princesses, nor even a dragon), and we are still fascinated by the appearance of ordinary objects—if not sprats then dogs, abandoned classrooms, the remains of fast-food restaurants. And most important, the heroine remains the investigator, our passport into a world that remains curious (that is to say, unknown) to us. Kirsten must do what all heroines in curious novels do: she must traverse the landscape carrying her conduct book, testing its maxims and charting its variations. But the temporal chasm alters everything. If the eighteenth-century novel traces the “history of the young lady’s entrance into the world,” and the nineteenth-century novel is looking around the corner, down a darkened alley, searching for people at whose lives we can only guess, when we read Station Eleven we are trying to glimpse our own lives after apocalypse, reading about an event that could have happened yesterday (or that might happen for us tomorrow), and is, by the time the central portion of the book begins, only twenty years in the past. Futurist novels are always about what to them is the past, and to us is our present, and yet here this uncanny proximity comes at us with remarkable urgency. And that is because our heroine, Kirsten, is trying not just to survive in her world but to see our world. Like another Alice, she falls into the gap between the two worlds—the world of the opening chapter, in which she moved about freely, just another child actress, and a world in which all remnants of that prior world are falling into decrepitude, and the markers no longer mean anything. She can, in short, see even her own life only in glimpses—as a younger character says, “I’ve read books. I even found a newspaper once. I know it all used to be different” (292). As Kirsten moves through the novel, she is doing two things: trying to survive and scouting out her own past.
If her journey is what we might expect, her conduct book most certainly is not. Nowhere in Station Eleven do we see any guides to living after a plague, nor even a road map of what the land around Lake Michigan used to be like. Mandel does not cite (not even in her acknowledgments) such bibles of plaguery as Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone or Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague; the only book to appear in those acknowledgments is an apocalyptic novel that features vampires, Justin Cronin’s The Passage.13 Even Shakespeare appears not as a guide to living nor as high art (the Symphony plays not only Beethoven but “classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs” ), but as himself a product of the plague: “She remembered Dieter talking to her about Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s work and family, Shakespeare’s plague-haunted life. ‘Wait, do you mean he had the plague?’ she asked. ‘No,’ Dieter said, ‘I mean he was defined by it. I don’t know how much schooling you’ve had. Do you know what that means, to be defined by something?’” (308). And Kirsten thinks, “Yes. There was a new heaven and a new earth.” So no, not Shakespeare. Not the Bible, no apocalyptic fiction. Mandel’s great trick of curiosity is that Kirsten’s book of the world is a comic book, a graphic novel depicting another apocalypse “a thousand years in the future.” It is that book that provides the aesthetic manifesto and the survival guide of our novel; it poses one of the chief mysteries of the plot, forging the chain that binds all the characters together; and it is also called “Station Eleven.”
Or part of it is. “Station Eleven” is the first of two volumes of a graphic novel called “Dr. Eleven,” depicting Station Eleven the place, a spaceship which is also a planet, one that has slipped through a rift in time and become a planet of night, covered by water, haunted by a part of the population that lives beneath the surface, in the “undersea.” (To distinguish them in my essay, I will refer to Station Eleven, Mandel’s novel, with italics; “Station Eleven,” the volume of the graphic novel, with quotation marks; and Station Eleven the place as merely itself, but expect to lose your own place occasionally as you follow these complicated threads. Getting lost between worlds, remember, is the point.) The people in the graphic novel, those on the planet/spaceship, like the people in the world of Station Eleven after the disaster, are divided. Some live at peace in the new world, grown accustomed to the beauty of a world of perpetual twilight and sunsets; others live undersea and yearn only for the sweetness of the world they left behind. But here’s the thing: this novel was written fifteen years before our apocalypse. It was written by Miranda Carroll, the first wife of Arthur Leander, the actor who died in the novel’s first scene. (Miranda is one of the three ex-wives Arthur’s best friend calls in the opening pages of the novel, after Arthur dies.) She was already working on it when she fell in love with Arthur and decided to leave her boyfriend for him. “It is sometimes necessary,” she thought at that moment, “to break everything” (85). She “began thinking about the possibilities of the form, about spaceships and stars, alien planets, but a year passed before she invented the beautiful wreckage of Station Eleven” (88). It is what Miranda imagines when she begins her life with Arthur in Los Angeles: she thinks, “I could throw away almost everything . . . and begin all over again. Station Eleven will be my constant” (89). And at the same time, it is also the world through which we walk, what Kirsten calls “the beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone” (148), “beauty in the decrepitude,” underwater and tarnished.
That sense of gorgeous estrangement is what makes Kirsten’s book of the world so mysterious, so curious, so useful. At first we do not even know how Kirsten came to possess the book Miranda started so long ago. Indeed, it is a wonder she has any book at all, for very few written materials remain in the after world. There are TV Guides, which are treasured objects, even if they were already “mostly obsolete, but used by a few people right up to the end,” and volumes of poetry, “even rarer than TV Guide copies” (40). Newspapers exist in a variety of forms, before and after. There are “old” newspapers—as one character asks ironically, “Do I have the second to last edition of the New York Times?” (184). which happens to be the newspaper that has Arthur’s death in it—and there is a new newspaper, which is being typeset by hand by François Diallo, an editor in New Petoskey. The texts we spend the most time with are celebrity magazines: we watch Kirsten and her friend August hunt for them in the remaining houses, shops, ruins. But as Kirsten leafs through them, not just the past but alternative universes emerge: “August said that given an infinite number of parallel universes, there had to be one where there had been no pandemic and he’d grown up to be a physicist as planned” (200). In one magazine August finds a picture of a woman we know to be Miranda leaving the Toronto theater two weeks before Arthur’s death, and says to Kirsten, “I mean, it is you in those pictures, in a parallel universe where the collapse didn’t happen” (201). Kirsten stares at the magazine, and wonders: “I think I was there,” Kirsten said. “I might’ve been in that building at that moment.” Behind Miranda, “she saw only a steel door, the stone wall of a building. Had she passed through that door? She must have, she thought, and wished she could remember it” (201).
This is the uncanny status of curiosity in Station Eleven: Kirsten may wonder, but we know not only that she was there “at that moment” but that it is where her comics came from. Miranda was backstage at the theater, giving Arthur the finished copies of “Dr. Eleven,” and Kirsten entered the dressing room. An entire parallel universe opens once we get the full “memory.” As we learn late in the novel, when Miranda looked at the young Kirsten, two weeks before the end of the world in a theater in Toronto, she knew, instantly, that the girl was a child actor—although she “couldn’t imagine what part there could possibly be in King Lear for a seven- or eight-year-old” (212):
“Hello,” Miranda said. The girl looked like a china doll, she thought. She looked like someone who’d been well-cared-for and coddled all her life. She was probably someone who would grow up to be like Miranda’s assistant Laetitia, like Leon’s assistant Thea, unadventurous and well-groomed. (212–13)
Miranda leaves the dressing room and Kirsten doesn’t remember the encounter, knowing only that Arthur gave her the comics; the moment is lost. But another, “alternative” reality is lost as well. The girl that Miranda briefly conjures never comes into existence. The Kirsten we meet is still an actor, indeed, “the best Shakespearean actress in the territory” (120), but she bears two tattooed daggers on her wrist, the signs that she has killed two men. She is missing teeth, she has a scar for which she cannot account (it came in the first year, when she and her brother walked, and she remembers nothing), and she wears on her arm another tattoo, the motto of the Traveling Symphony, “Survival is insufficient.” That adult woman is not in the least well-groomed and she is every bit of adventurous—but somewhere, in an alternative universe, another Kirsten has grown up like a china doll, coddled, cared for, and unmarked. That woman is lingering, ghostlike, just outside our text.
That is why “Dr. Eleven” is the only possible road map to the broken world, however surreal its intergalactic scenery. Its ghosts hold the clues to our novel. Kirsten cannot remember her parents’ faces; her brother is dead; she remembers a scene backstage, and the actor dying, and a man (a man we know to be Jeevan) who was kind to her. She is looking for pieces of her own past—but they are also pieces of the other characters’ past, and they allow the novel to move backward as well as forward, to assemble in fragments the pieces of a multiplot novel, that unified narrative no single character can (in this broken world) possess. But the book can, in the same way it can bridge the temporal disruptions. It gives us back what the characters have lost, in much the same way that when Arthur first sees the finished, published volumes of “Dr. Eleven,” he remembers their creation: “The cover of the first one was on the studio wall in L.A., wasn’t it?” It is an image, he once said, that was “like the establishing shot for a movie: the sharp islands of the City, streets and buildings terraced into the rock, high bridges between” (213–14).
By this time, of course, there are no more movies, and Arthur’s analogy would mean little to someone actually in the world of the novel, yet the lost metaphor remains vital. That is in part because the creation of “Station Eleven” takes place in the world of the movies, giving those scenes much of their poignancy. The longest section of the novel is a single night in Hollywood, eleven years before the collapse, thirty years before the events of the present-day, a dreadful dinner party that brings together all the characters we have “already” met in the scenes after Arthur Leander’s unexpected death. The guests are Elizabeth, the beautiful actress Arthur will marry next; Gary Heller, who is Arthur’s lawyer; Heller’s wife, whose name Miranda will forget “although she’s heard it at least twice this evening” (92); a producer; an actor; and “a woman named Tesch,” who “seems to be someone who mistakes rudeness for intellectual rigor” (93).
At first, this scene seems merely to provide the details of an impeccable realism, doing the work of the nineteenth-century novel by providing everything from Mayhewian social reportage to the Dickensian multiplot intricacy, offering that same proliferation of details. The conversation is brilliant, the satire pointed. Tesch, in a moment of dialectal delight, says that “Station Eleven” reminds her “‘of a documentary I saw last month, a little Czech film about an outsider artist who refused to show her work during her lifetime. She lived in Praha, and—’ ‘Oh,’ Clark says, [interrupting her] ‘I believe when you’re speaking English, you’re allowed to refer to it as Prague’” (95). Mandel reports quietly that “Tesch appears to have lost the power of speech.” At this moment Miranda realizes, “It’s too late, and it’s been too late for a while,” and her marriage is over (98). But the night continues. Her picture is taken outside by Jeevan the paparazzo, her house is in silence, the opening shot of “Station Eleven” is on an easel in her room, and Miranda, sitting by the swimming pool, says to her dog Luli (“shining like a ghost,” (91) about to make her way into “Station Eleven” and hence into the afterworld), “This life was never ours. . . . We were only ever borrowing it” (101). Miranda realizes that “she is marooned on a strange planet” (92), and “Station Eleven is all around [her]” (107), but so are all the “damaged homes”: the silent house of their ruined marriage, the ravaged ruins of the world after the plague, the painting on the easel where Dr. Eleven (“a man from the future who does not whine”) stands on a rock with a Pomeranian by his side: “Text: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on earth” (214). No wonder the comic book is a guide to the apocalypse. It knew the end before we did, and it survived.
For Kirsten, who is herself “marooned on a strange planet,” this is the book she needs, not “Apocalypse for Dummies” or “Beloved Back-Roads of Central Michigan.” Like Benjamin’s angel, she is always looking back at what is lost while fighting for survival amid what is broken, and for her, “Station Eleven” is both a piece of the lost world and a guide to bridging the temporal gap, a stopgap, allowing her to construct a life at the intersection. Mandel, too, in a world without planes, trains, and automobiles, without bridges and tunnels and railways, without the usual mechanisms (quite literally) of plot, must hold together her fictional universe. But how? For after all, in the realist novel, so much depends on the network, the familiar grooves along which a reader’s curiosity can travel.
Here we rejoin the curiosity of the world of Dickens and Mayhew, the world in which “sprats” became magical, and Florence Dombey and her slipshod sisters trod the world of homeless London, every object illuminated. How much more so is that true after the collapse, in the “orangeless world,” where it is the objects, far more than the people, that travel, radiant in their very ordinariness. Kirsten’s copy of “Station Eleven” is one of those objects and, as we shall see, a crucial one, but almost any object will do—a souvenir, a haunted teacup, a photograph, any object of a certain weight. Or more accurately, one kind of weight, for “You’re still the only person I know who carries a paperweight in her backpack,” the journalist in the afterworld says to Kirsten (184). The paperweight marks out its own network in the novel. It was given by Clark to Arthur on the night of that dreadful dinner party in Los Angeles; Miranda takes it when she leaves the house in LA and only years later, two weeks before the apocalypse, does she return it to Arthur in a theatre in Toronto, where it will be handed to Kirsten, after Arthur’s death, by Tanya, the “wrangler” of the child actors, to comfort her in the fake snow and the bright light of the theater: “Kirsten, teary-eyed and breathless, a few days shy of her eighth birthday, gazed at the object and thought it was the most beautiful, the most wonderful, the strangest thing anyone had ever given her. It was a lump of glass with a storm cloud trapped inside” (15). And that is eerily what Miranda thought when she first saw it, that night in Los Angeles: “A paperweight of clouded glass[,] . . . when she holds it, it’s a pleasing weight in the palm of her hand. It’s like looking into a storm. She tells herself as she switches off the light that she’s only taking the paperweight back to her study to sketch it, but she knows she’s going to keep it forever” (104). Miranda doesn’t, of course, but the novel does.
The novel is the place where objects go to die and to live forever: one character, on being told of the “Museum of Civilization,” “a place where artifacts from the old world are preserved,” laughs, “a sound like a bark.” “Artifacts from the old world,” he says. “Here’s the thing, kids, the entire world is a place where artifacts from the old world are preserved. When was the last time you saw a new car?” (146). But that world is fast decaying: as Kirsten herself reflects, when asked how she bears it, “We stand it because we were younger than you were when everything ended, Kirsten thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone” (130). The novel needs to create—rather, people need to create—a holding place for the traces of the former world. The novel needs to design a place where objects come back to life.
That place is, ironically, truly a “terminal,” the airport of Severn City, where Clark Thompson, Arthur Leander’s best friend, is diverted midflight on his way to Arthur’s funeral—no one, despite Jeevan’s earlier metaphor, is moving “quickly” through this airport. This is where Clark realizes, in the book’s most haunting sentence, “I was here for the end of electricity.” In the sudden darkness, “the stars were a cloud of light across the breadth of the sky, extravagant in their multitudes,” and Clark thinks he is hallucinating, but his friend Dolores says no, it is not his imagination; he is actually seeing the sky that Galileo saw, now that “the era of light pollution had come to an end” (251). Yet in this permanent layover, the “darkness pooling over the earth [as] the grid was failing,” Clark creates a Wunderkammer of curiosities. Out of the beautiful empty shelves of the Skymiles Lounge, he forges a museum: He places his useless iPhone on the top shelf, adds an Amex card and a driver’s license belonging to a woman who died, and while he mentions it to no one, “when he came back a few hours later, someone had added another iPhone, a pair of five-inch red stiletto heels, and a snow globe” (255).
This moment transforms the novel. Until then, the novel’s only verb has been “to walk.” As one character says, “All of the Symphony’s stories were the same, in two variations. Everyone else died, I walked, I found the Symphony. Or, I was very young when it happened, I was born after it happened, I have no memories or few memories of any other way of living, and I have been walking all my life” (266), but the novel now offers a new verb: “to museum,” to form a collection, to say that we (not I, we) were here. These objects have become curious: they bear the traces of care, they have the power to cure, and they are beautiful:
There seemed to be a limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve: cell phones with their delicate buttons, iPads, Tyler’s Nintendo console, a selection of laptops. There were a number of impractical shoes, stilettos mostly, beautiful and strange. There were three car engines in a row, cleaned and polished, a motorcycle composed mostly of gleaming chrome. Traders brought things for Clark sometimes, objects of no real value that they knew he would like: magazines and newspapers, a stamp collection, coins. There were the passports or the driver’s licenses or sometimes the credit cards of people who had lived at the airport and then died. Clark kept impeccable records. (258)
It is no accident that the passage describing the beauty of objects takes up, of all things, the snow globe. “Clark had always been fond of beautiful objects, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful,” and he goes on to “consider the snow globe”: the mind that invented it; the factory worker “who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City,” the assembly-line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China (255). The gloves on the hands of the woman who shipped it, the ship that carried it, the signature on the shipping manifest, the secret hopes of the UPS man. The whole of the world really is contained in a single object, and it is the mass-market twin of the paperweight that Kirsten carries in her backpack, both objects a novel unto themselves. In that doubling, our novel has seemingly done its curious work: it has brought the heroine to the edge of the known world, and it has assembled its own collection of objects in the wonder house, a museum that is itself a “terminal.”14
But this “terminal” is not the end of the novel, nor is it the novel’s final word on curiosity. That word might actually be borrowed by a theorist at the other end of the ecological spectrum, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Tsing has gone so far as to suggest that in bringing back the world, “our first step is to bring back curiosity.”15 What she has in mind is the matsutake, an exotic mushroom, blooming rarely, with a legendary, piquant, “woodsy” odor redolent of the autumn in which it grows, the first thing to grow after the atom bomb in Hiroshima. Her response to the ruins of capitalism is to return to the precarious, the organic, the rare, and the meaningful, something we hunt out, something that is precisely not ruined.
And yet, unexpectedly, it is Tsing who gives me back the language with which I began, for she, too, imagines that this “curiosity” grows out of destruction, that life as we know it is always a state of “disturbance.” As she says, at the moment of precarity, the matsutake grows only in “deeply disturbed forests.”16 What she does not mean is an empty airport terminal, obviously, or the “archipelago” of civilization, inhabited by ferals, but what she does mean are the increasingly messy networks, the “patches” of social organization, which require “the magic of translation,”17 the “searching” for the matsutake,18 the translation which is “the drawing of one world-making project into another,”19 the “under-ground,” “world-building” networks of fungi that happen “after progress.”20 As Tsing claims, “radical curiosity beckons.”21
And that is the work of Station Eleven, where curiosity is explicitly made world (re)building, and the heroine is remade from the actress into the explorer, the “searcher,” setting out for another world armed with, of course, her guidebook: the novel of the impossible future made up of the beautiful fragments of the lost world. So consider again the snow globe, that elegant, ubiquitous, mass-produced, infinitely disposable object, truly a multum in parvo. The novel began in a flurry of fake snow in a theater in Toronto; Jeevan steps out of the theater into a real snowstorm, which conjures the joys of his childhood; Kirsten travels with a paperweight that contains a storm within it; at the end of the novel, Clark, now a very old and frail man, is contemplating the wonders of another fake snowstorm, this one inside a snow globe of the Severn City Airport, a place he will never leave.
This is the way Station Eleven finally remodels curiosity, as itself a model of how the world is to continue: not just the snow globe but Kirsten’s backpack filled with celebrity clippings, fragments, a reminder that “once, when she was sixteen years old, . . . she found her past” in a magazine (40), a reminder that we leave a record behind us—even if that record is a thousand years in the future. “I collect celebrity gossip clippings. . . . I understand something about permanent records” (268).
The novel creates its own collection. It holds the world together as Elaine Scarry promises of what the Swiss do in practicing, repeatedly, for nuclear war. Each member of a village has a task, down to collecting “the statue of Saint Roch with the accompanying statue of Saint Roch’s dog, who in turn holds in his mouth a ceramic Eucharist wafer.”22 This is no trivial act, for “in saving any one precious object, what is preserved is not only that object but the population’s link, through that object, to many kindred objects outside of Switzerland, which may or may not survive a nuclear war.”23 This is Scarry’s account in Thermonuclear Monarchy, but she argues something even more powerful in Rule of Law, Misrule of Man. She argues that even (or especially) in war, “the most fundamental norms are not to be violated”: “The creation of an accurate record is the work of many people.”24 She says explicitly, “Some small pieces of language in war must remain wholly intact, uncompromised, unwavering, undiluted in their meaning. These few insignia [white flags, red crosses, ambulances, and hospitals] are placed hors de combat, or ‘out of combat’: they constitute a civil structure that remains in place in the international sphere in the same way that inside a country the military is kept inside a civil frame.”25 She goes on: “Unless certain pieces of language remain uncontaminated by war, no international framework of trust remains available for a truce or peace accord. These small pieces of language must be kept intact because they provide a bridge back to civilization.”26
For Mandel this is not a “civil frame” as much as it is an imaginative frame. “A location from which other true sentences can be spoken”27 is what the curious heroine both seeks and provides. This was suggested as early as Miranda’s death, which we only read at the end of the book, for although Miranda dies of the plague, she dies into her own novel. As she dies the whole world turns into “Dr. Eleven”: “A wash of violent color, pink and streaks of brilliant orange. . . . The seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo sea” (228). We think this is the last of Miranda, but she comes back again later, at the very end, when we return to the scene in Toronto when she first sketched what will become Dr. Eleven’s ship:
Miranda is drawing Leon Prevant’s reception area before she realizes what she’s doing. The prairies of carpet, the desk, Leon’s closed office door, the wall of glass. The two staplers on her desk—how did she end up with two?—and the doors leading out to the elevators and restrooms. Trying to convey the serenity of this place where she spends her most pleasant hours, the refinement of it, but outside the glass wall she substitutes another landscape, dark rocks and high bridges. (86–87)
As it first appeared, this was classic realism, the connection of characters and things, the second stapler like Barthes’s barometer, the sign of a realism that is “enough” by being “too much,” superfluous to requirement.28 But when she dies, that scene comes back, magically illuminated:
In Dr. Eleven, Vol. 1, No. 2: The Pursuit, Dr. Eleven is visited by the ghost of his mentor, Captain Lonagan, recently killed by an Undersea assassin. Miranda discarded fifteen versions of this image before she felt that she had the ghost exactly right, working hour upon hour, and years later, at the end, delirious on an empty beach on the coast of Malaysia with seabirds rising and plummeting through the air and a line of ships fading out on the horizon, this was the image she kept thinking of, drifting away from and then toward it and then slipping somehow through the frame: the captain is rendered in delicate watercolors, a translucent silhouette in the dim light of Dr. Eleven’s office, which is identical to the administrative area in Leon Prevant’s Toronto office suite, down to the two staplers on the desk. (330)
When Dr. Eleven is visited by his mentor’s ghost, he asks him what dying was like: “It was exactly like waking up from a dream,” he says. But Miranda’s dream is precise, careful, a refurnishing of the world. Gil argued that the Traveling Symphony should perform “‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Gil said, breaking an impasse. ‘I believe the evening calls for fairies’” (44). But this “evening,” this interlude in the archipelago of civilization, also requires gadgets, objects, staplers. If we are going to have electricity again, we will need not “enough” objects but too many—not one stapler, but two: “How did she end up with two?”
This is the way Station Eleven becomes once again curious. It reassembles the fragments of our culture, lost and disused (“When was the last time you saw a new car?”) so that Kirsten can walk bravely into a new world. Miranda and the landscape of “Station Eleven” and Station Eleven come together at the end, when Kirsten carries “Station Eleven” into the museum, where it meets its final and best reader: Clark. And what he finds, when Kirsten hands him the novel, is a drawing of an undersea world, which is actually a representation of that infamous dinner party he attended thirty years before in Los Angeles. In both, there is a dog called Luli, a wavery figure who resembles Clark himself, and a pretentious woman in glasses reminiscing about life on Earth. “‘I traveled the world before the war,’ she says. ‘I spent some time in the Czech Republic, you know, in Praha . . . ,’ and tears come to his eyes because all at once he recognizes the dinner party; he was there” (332). Suddenly, we, too, are there, and we hear the echo of that ironic comment, all those years ago: the wavery figure in our memory says, “I believe when you’re speaking English you’re allowed to refer to it as Prague.” “Once Clark sat with all of them in Los Angeles, at a table under electric light. On the page, only Miranda is missing, her chair taken by Dr. Eleven” (332). He feels “such affection for them,” and he remembers Miranda slipping out the door, into the night, when he followed her, because he was “curious about her” as she sits outside with the dog who looks like a cloud, as Jeevan, the paparazzo, waited by her front door, waiting to snap her, unawares, for the gossip pages. “At least celebrity gossip survives”—it survives, and with it, the world.
E. M. Forster was wrong. Curiosity, our desire to know “and then . . .” does hold the world together. Throughout the book, we have done the work of curiosity. We have placed the fragments back together, we have found the objects and mapped their trajectories, we have made a coherent narrative where there were only ghosts. We have built the bridge on which Kirsten will walk away from “the terminal” and into the new world. Having seen the glimmer of the internet beginning again and lights in the distance, in a new city, she goes bearing her guidebook, her novel, or rather, only one of her novels. One volume of “Dr. Eleven” goes with her; the other stays behind, in the museum, so that one will always be safe. “And if Clark hadn’t come to know her a little, over the weeks when the Symphony had lived in Concourse A and performed music or Shakespeare every night, he might not have caught the excitement in her voice. She was beside herself with impatience to see the far southern town with the electrical grid,” the town they have only glimpsed (is it again Galileo, a new age of enlightenment?) through a telescope (332).
Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side? If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility. He liked the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight. (332–33)
Perhaps. And perhaps in that new world, “just out of sight,” people will again sit under an electric light, gossiping and flirting and being ordinary. “Simply by curiosity”? Nothing simple here, and yet what Mandel is offering us is what the anthropologists, the epidemiologists, the documentarians, and the fantasists want but only the novel can provide: a ship made of paper, in which we can sail into the curious unknown.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (New York: Knopf, 2014), 57. Further page citations are in the text.
E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1927), 86–87.
Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998).
John Eisner and Roger Cardinal, The Culture of Collecting (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994); Mieke Bal, “Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting,” in Eisner and Cardinal, The Culture of Collecting; Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting,” in Eisner and Cardinal, The Culture of Collecting; and Jean Baudrillard, “A Marginal System: Collecting,” in The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict (1968; London: Verso, 1996).
Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), 54.
Hilary M. Schor, Curious Subjects: Women and the Trials of Realism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
My account of the rise of the novel follows Ian Watt’s classic The Rise of the Novel (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957); for further discussions of the relationship of the “news” to the novel, and the rise of the heroine as “nobody,” see Lennard Davis, Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983); Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1760–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
Frances Burney, Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 7.
William Makepeace Thackeray, “Waiting at the Station,” from Punch, March 9, 1850, reprinted in Punch’s Prize Novelists, The Fat Contributor and Travels in London (New York, 1853).
This most perfect phrase is Walter Bagehot’s, in his “Charles Dickens,” National Review, 1858, reprinted in Literary Studies, vol. 2, ed. Richard Holt Hutton (London: Thomas Greene, 1895), 141.
London Labour and the London Poor began as a series of articles by Henry Mayhew published in the 1840s in a newspaper, The Morning Chronicle. They were collected into three volumes in 1851; they are largely organized by profession, but they also feature a dizzying array of objects, statistics, and interviews.
The novel is California, by Edan Lepucki (New York: Little, Brown, 2014)—a very good novel, despite my teasing. The literature on dystopia and utopia is too vast to collect here, but readers will also recognize my allusion to William Morris’s News from Nowhere.
These were the two books on my shelf as I was writing this essay: Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (New York: Penguin, 1994) and Richard Preston, The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (New York: Random House, 1994). The Passage (New York: Ballantine Books, 2010) is invoked in the novel by Arthur’s second wife, Elizabeth, as proof that the rest of the world could actually still exist and they simply not know it (as happens in The Passage, where vampires have taken over North America and a quarantine is imposed), and that civilization could survive. Clark doubts her—but she might, in fact, be right; civilization might survive after all.
Barbara Stafford has argued that curiosity cabinets find their modern equivalent in the computer, another kind of “terminal.” Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2001).
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015), 7.
Tsing, 139, 139, 66.
Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing between Democracy and Doom (New York: Norton, 2014), 356.
Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 55.
Elaine Scarry, Rule of Law, Misrule of Man (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010), 65, 74.
Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” in The Rustle of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).