Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Wordcraft – The ever newborn lure of the world's end

With post-apocalyptic novels everywhere, what makes a writer with a solid platform of literary novels and essays like Emily St. John Mandel write a novel (and a highly-acclaimed novel at that) about the end of the world? And why are readers drawn to these “narratives of collapse”? Those were among the questions she addressed before an audience at Southern Methodist University, where her post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, was this year’s SMU Common Reading  book for new students.

Is it a longing for redemption, the hope that “if the world is remade, perhaps (we) have a chance to remake ourselves? Do we hope that in a moment of extremity, we will express an inner nobility. . . or “do we love post-apocalyptic novels because there are no more frontiers, now that “we’ve mapped every inch of the 29 percent of the world that’s above sea level?”

The last possibility seemed particularly apt for a writer who is also an unabashed Star Trek fan, and whose theme for this latest novel, “because survival is insufficient,” is drawn from an episode of Star Trek Voyager.

In some ways, Station Eleven is also the post-apocalyptic world of Mandel’s career. After writing three literary novels with noir elements, “I realized I was in danger of getting pigeonholed as a crime writer. I just wanted to write something completely different.”

Post-apocalyptic, however, wasn’t the first thing that came to her mind. But while considering a story about a theatrical troupe, she began to think about all the things taken for granted in our modern world: things as seemingly simple as flipping a switch to bring the lights on in a building.

“It’s both fascinating and terrifying to think about the fragility of these systems. What would we miss, what would we hold on to and try to recreate if all the trappings of civilization fell away? It seemed to me that one of the things that’s best about this world is the plays of Shakespeare.”

Now with a theme that combined her original idea about acting with a post-apocalyptic take (and after running the possibilities for the end of the world past her husband, who fortunately didn’t laugh) she was left to decide how to bring the world as we know it to an end.

Nuclear war? Maybe. But her “most unexpectedly fascinating research” was in the history of pandemics.

Shakespeare work and life, filled with allusions to plagues that killed close family members and closed theaters, leaving his company of players to wander to the countryside, led her to consider an older, grimmer human fear than war, the millennia-long dread of disease. “We have a deep fear of illness, in a way we don’t fear other things that are more likely to kill us,” she said. (And as she wrote in her New Republic essay, “You’ll probably never catch Ebola – so why is the disease so terrifying?”)

And so also she opens Station Eleven with the performance onstage of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the story of an aging king who decides to end his own kingdom by dividing it among his daughters. Meanwhile, in the city outside the theater, a strange disease rages, one that will kill 99 percent of the Earth’s population, not only presidents and prime ministers, but the nameless billions who build and maintain all the infrastructure civilization depends on. But leaving a few, including a child actress who was onstage in King Lear at that moment zero, survives twenty years after the plague has run its course, to carry the continuity of pre-plague theater to the survivors. It is because “survival is insufficient?” Or because, ironically, the end of the world as we know it is never really the end? 

“With all details stripped away, what are we left with? Everything that matters.”

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