STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

A lot of post-apocalyptic novels are about stripping people down to their essence. Who are we without cars, phones, grocery stores... laws, prisons, consequences. What does it mean to be human, how do you stay human, when you're living like an animal--fighting for survival, one step ahead of hunger.

Most post-apocalyptics will tell you that we're still social, that friendships and trust matter more than ever, that some of us are still noble, that strength shines through in a way it couldn't without a backdrop of sheer desperation. But they'll also have you looking over your shoulder, dogged by the inescapable notion that we're one natural disaster away from being cavemen, that our sense of self is built on an artificial foundation.

STATION ELEVEN is the antidote to that attitude. It has the frame of a conventional post-apocalyptic novel--a motley assortment of companions brought together by necessity, living a hard-scrabble existence, who encounter a charismatic arch-nemesis--but it's about the drive to make art, to move beyond subsistence, to cultivate beauty.

The main characters of the post-apocalypse in STATION ELEVEN belong to the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel in a circuit around the great lakes, performing for the small settlements they pass through. Their motto is "survival is insufficient" and they make their livelihood proving that to themselves and to their audiences.

As a sidenote: I tend to be wary of art about how important art is. The element of self-congratulation can get really tiresome, like watching an awards show. Congratulations to us! And to us again! STATION ELEVEN never crossed that line for me. Maybe because the characters are more pragmatic than pretentious? They scavenge in abandoned homes for costumes, perform whatever the audience wants to see. Something about STATION ELEVEN reminded me of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD by Tom Stoppard; the players create a sense of heightened reality or surreality, not a circle jerk.

The book alternates between chapters set in the pre-apocalypse, before the disease that wipes out most of humanity, and chapters set in the post-apocalypse. The alternating timelines evoke nostalgia instead of horror, wonder instead of pain. A sense of loss permeates the book, but also of hope. It's melancholy and beautiful.

Human beings make art. It's a defining characteristic of our species. Strip us down to nothing and art will still come back.

Anyway. I enjoyed the book. It's well-written, atmospheric, enjoyable. Worth a read.