I wanted and expected to enjoy this novel more than I did. There’s much that’s gripping and clever but it was spoiled for me by a sloppiness in its construction, most notably an excess of half-baked and obfuscating characters. Was this novel rushed to cash in on the Hunger Games pandemic? At times it comes across as a novel written with heart but equally it can seem like it was conceived in a corporate boardroom with more than one eye on a big Hollywood deal. Also should be said that it karaokes most other successful dystopian novels of recent times, most obviously, and by turns, Cloud Atlas, The Road, The Hunger Games and Dog Star.
Primary weakness of this novel is its characters. Too many and sometimes not only incidental to the story but clumsily obtrusive. The novel has as its fulcrum two events – a performance of King Lear immediately before the pandemic arrives, when Arthur Leander has a fatal heart attack on stage and a dinner party when Miranda, Arthur’s first wife and the creator of the Station Eleven comic, first realises her husband is betraying her. The most unwanted character in the book, Jeevan is present at both of these events, first as a paparazzo, then as a training paramedic. A preposterous coincidence (preparing us, in some way, for the tapestry of preposterous coincidences that follow and have to be accepted if the novel is going to work) that might have been a brilliant stroke of mischievous humour if Jeevan had any other roe to play in the novel. But he doesn’t. Mandel simply uses him to dramatise the immediate aftermath of the epidemic. But she has half a dozen other characters who could easily have performed this function. In fact it would have given the Travelling Symphony more body had she used Kirsten here, the orchestra’s principle character. As it is the Symphony remains a sketched idea that flits in and out of the book with little more body than reflected light. Proof that there are too many characters is most evident when a member of the Travelling Orchestra is killed which is clearly supposed to be a moment of great pathos but I didn’t have a clear idea of who he even was because the males in the circus blur into each other and Kirsten seems to have a special relationship with at least four of them. Kirsten is another character who for me didn’t work at all. She seems like a photocopy of the heroine of The Hunger Games – never even remotely convincing as a warrior child with her knife throwing expertise. Conveniently we’re not told what happened to her to justify her transition from innocent child to stalker/warrior.
Everyone in the novel is a custodian – another example of characters with cloned purposes. Kirsten is the custodian of the Station Eleven comic but so too is Arthur’s son; Arthur’s son is also the custodian of religious fervour, Arthur’s best friend is the custodian of the novel’s museum, the Travelling Symphony is the custodian of culture and another pointless character called Francois starts a newspaper and so becomes the custodian of the written word (the interviews with Kirsten don’t work at all except to make the Cloud Atlas shoplifting more apparent) So everyone’s representing something and as a result, with the exception of Miranda, the creator and, to a lesser extent, Arthur, the actor, don’t ever come alive in their own right.
Triumphs: Mandel, in essence, is an admirable storyteller. And the fluid shape of the novel is great. Its flashbacking roving archaeological momentum almost like the act of nostalgia itself – the novel is obsessively nostalgic, most successfully through the imagery of the comics, least successfully when nostalgia is constantly the subject of conversation.
Best character by a country mile is the Station Eleven comic and its creator Miranda. The comic book is cleverly used as a kind of portal between the before and after – and here the nostalgia theme is at its most poignant. Whenever the comic was the novel’s focal point it really held my interest. Shame that it was cluttered with so many other cloned and conflicting narratives. I couldn’t help feeling, if only someone had prompted Mandel to do one final draft. Hew the thing into a more polished form and think out some of the elements that weren’t thoroughly thought out. As commercial storytelling it’s a good novel, as literature it doesn’t cut it for me. More a collection of catchy pop songs than a moving cello sonata.