What I’m reading…
I heard Emily St John Mandel talking on one of the digital sessions of the Melbourne Writers Festival – and congrats, MWF for keeping these going post-Lockdowns. I hope they continue! I ended up with small pile of books by the authors I’d heard online, including Station 11. This pandemic novel was written in 2014 and I delighted I didn’t discover it two years ago. It would have been difficult to read at the beginning of our own pandemic.
What’s to love about Mandel’s work? First of all, the breadth of her vision and the way she organises her narratives. Despite her subject matter – and I’ve read about pandemics and ponzi schemes – she is a playful writer, shifting characters from one novel to another and delighting in the chance encounters and moments of serendipity that are part of life but can seem contrived in fiction. In Mandel’s work they don’t seem contrived as much as speculated – a bit like an improv riff that becomes integral to the orchestration.
Station 11 is one of those books that straddle speculative and literary fiction – one such a rarity no one quite knew what to do with them. Mandel won the Arthur C. Clarke award (2015) and the novel was a finalist in both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The trajectories of the characters twist and turn, intersect and collide against the backdrop of the end of the world interspersed with flashbacks of past lives lived in a more mobile, technologically charged world where people could be contacted by a finger-tap and you locked your home before you left it for work or leisure.
Katy Waldman, in her piece in the New Yorker, ‘The Rewriting of Emily St John Mandel’, says Station 11 is ‘a mood piece bounded by grief” contrasting it with The Glass Hotel which is ‘interested not just in humanity but in individual humans’. I’m not sure that I agree one hundred percent with this – Mandel balances a large cast of characters in both novels and her fragmented narrative technique cuts against an over-riding investment in one central character – this is not to say that the characters aren’t highly developed – they absolutely are – but it was almost that I had the freedom to choose my favourite character and barrack for their survival.
Mandel, herself, calls Station 11 ‘a love letter to the current world, written in the form of a requiem’. Clark’s musing on the artifacts in his Museum of Civilisation, set up when he realises that he, like many of the other airplane passengers caught in a small window of time just before the pandemic rips through the world, will survive, reads like an elegy to a past way of life. It’s poignancy balanced between the sheer ordinariness of the objects, now useless, and their nostalgic elevation.
But the novel is also craftily plotted – at first the reader is discomforted – who? why? – but then piecing the elements together becomes part of the reading joy and, perhaps, a nod to Mandel’s early forays into noir thrillers.
The Glass Hotel is also fragmented – beginning with a monologue, ‘Vincent in the Ocean’ before diving back to the past. But it’s not just the timelines that shift in this novel. Ghosts also move into the realm of the living, silent reminders of past misdeeds – or, as Ruth Franklin suggests, ‘physical manifestations of guilty consciences’. As with Station 11, the fragments are slowly and thrillingly pieced together
One thing I loved about both these novels was the sense of an omniscient narrator. It’s not a technique I’ve ever chosen to experiment with in my own work, but boy, Mandel uses it with real authority and you trust the conductor’s presence behind each musical riff. I can’t wait now to tackle Sea of Tranquility.