Emily St. John Mandel has written a wonderful book, Station Eleven, recognized with several award nominations, including being a finalist for the National Book Award. She has taken a topic much dwelled upon in modern fiction—an end-of-civilization “apocalypse”—but approached it from a fresh perspective.
Much end-of-the-world fiction celebrates a new world where the expectation is that a simpler, survival-based existence strips the falsity of modernity away. In those tales, zombie hordes are a metaphor for how we feel about the masses of people we live among; we hope not to gain their attention, for if we do, surely they will harry us.
Station Eleven, however, prefers to celebrate the wonder of modern civilization. Mandel writes, “Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt” (loc 2626). Station Eleven’s chosen protagonists fit this theme. The book does not follow former-housewives-turned-battle-proven-warriors, but a caravan of performers, musicians and actors, bringing Shakespeare to the towns surviving along the Great Lakes.
At first glance, the Traveling Symphony’s Star Trek inspired-motto, “Because survival is insufficient,” seems like it may be the theme of the book. Yet the characters in the Symphony themselves find their motto insufficient. The beauty of this world calls for celebration in poetry, art, the joining of human souls.
And so, in a “post-apocalyptic” setting, Mandel can wax eloquent about something we might be tempted to see as kitsch.
“Clark had always been fond of beautiful objects, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful. He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required. Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes….”
Mandel continues to fill an entire page. It is thematic: “survival is insufficient,” so we band together to appreciate what we can make together.
What of the fear that the people around us might be hostile, or, at least, just sleepwalkers who only get in the way? Before Clark (cited in the musing above) begins a museum of civilization in an airport sky-miles lounge, he had been a management consultant whose work consisted of determining if a struggling executive could be fixed or simply needed to be replaced. While working on one report, a secretary seems to provide wisdom for more than just the report.
“He had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for a while now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration? He wished he could somehow go back and find the iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier, apologize to them—I’m sorry, I’ve just realized that I’m as minimally present in this world as you are, I had no right to judge—and also he wanted to call every target of every 360Á report and apologize to them too, because it’s an awful thing to appear in someone else’s report, he saw that now, it’s an awful thing to be the target” (loc 2444).
This significant passage highlights two important themes: being minimally present in the actual world and the awfulness of being a target. The first theme is highlighted in the life of Miranda, in-world author of the comic book Dr. Eleven. Miranda is drawn as an isolated figure in nearly every scene in which she appears, not coincidentally, a character utterly opposed to having children herself.
Dr. Eleven is her life’s joy, though she does not care to share her creation. She gives two copies of the first two volumes of Dr. Eleven (Did she only, in the end, write just two volumes? We do not know.) to her ex-husband, Arthur. Without reading them, because Arthur is “simplifying” his life by removing “stuff,” he passes them off, one to his son, and one to a child actress who is working with him in the theater.
These same two characters keep the comics through the “apocalypse” of the novel. Now here comes the SPOILER. When those two characters finally meet, they are opposed, one ready to kill the other. Yet the aggressor says something which evokes the comic. So the potential victim tries to draw a connection from that work. But no connection is drawn. Art born of isolation, even if beautiful, fails because it does not wake the sleepwalker. We are left minimally present in the real world.
The importance of being present in the world that is raises questions about the second theme, that of the awfulness of being the target. Towards the end of the novel, Arthur, Miranda’s ex-husband, is playing King Lear. He is sent on stage before the official start time, as the audience files in, to stare at his crown. The first night, he broods, “regrets crowding in around him like moths to a light.” He barely makes it through this unrelenting self-reflection. The second night, remembering Miranda to once have said, “I repent nothing,” he decides, instead, to think of everything good.
This turn, similar to Clark’s awakening from sleepwalking, reminds of a theme fundamental to Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther: incurvatus in se, being curved in on oneself. The great theologians saw sin as a wretched turning in on oneself. This inward posture keeps us from appreciating both Creator and creation as goods in themselves, twisting them to be our means for self-justification or self-adulation.
In classic Augustinian/Lutheran theology, then, preaching to repentance is meant to do what the secretary does to Clark, wake you up, get you to see you are a sleepwalker, not only wasting the breath given you, but harming those given to love you.
And in classic Augustinian/Lutheran theology, it is an awful thing to be a target of that preaching because it reveals you to be “dead in your trespasses.” That awful diagnosis is meant to be followed with the good news of the Gospel, that Jesus, the Author of Life, died in your place, rose again, and pours out new life on all who believe. It is that message which “makes alive.” It is that message which is not present in Station Eleven.
So the religion that is present in Station Eleven is all isolating. No historic religion is portrayed. We might consider that the artifacts of the church are as gloriously connected as the snow globe, with a hymnal populated by voices across the globe and across time, with the church structures inspired similarly, built ages ago, and repaired and embellished generation after generation.
But in Station Eleven there is only “the Prophet,” a lonely voice with a message of his own making, who does not preach to the living but to the literal dead. The Prophet does not preach repentance and reconciliation to his own flock. He preaches division, that they are better than outsiders.
Mandel’s book is elegant as it is. She may have chosen not to grapple with actual historical religions simply because they would have been too large for her theme and scope. As I, a Lutheran pastor, read Station Eleven, however, I find her work crying out to be addressed by the Gospel handed over to me by generations past, the Gospel which seeks to unite people of all tribes and languages. Lutheran theology sings along on several of her verses and adds a chorus to replace the discord of the lonely prophet.
The theme, for example, of the marvel of the snow globe has long been meditated upon in the Lutheran doctrine of vocation. “Vocation” indicates our stations in life. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a pastor. I am a writer. I am a son. I am a brother. I am a customer. I am a patron of the arts. I could go on. God has placed me in these vocations, offering me opportunities to connect with other human beings. These bridges from one to another can sometimes feel like duty-bound burdens, tempting me to be minimally present. But when I embrace these duties through humble service, I find myself caught up in endeavors that transcend my lonely self, even as they remain mundane. The baker goes about his daily grind, even as he is part of the answer to so many prayers, “Give us this day our daily bread.” For more on vocation, a reader does well to turn to Gene Veith’s book God at Work.
Finally, the theme of repentance is, of course, central in Christian theology. Luther himself had to learn the point of repentance. Luther once spent the better part of a day in confession, listing everything he did wrong. The purpose of repentance is not to wallow in what can’t be changed. The purpose of repentance is to humble yourself so that you can become more present, not just to your fellow men around you, but to the God who renews you. Repentance prepares you for a message which always cuts against isolation, the Gospel of Emmanuel. The Son of God was born into this mundane world to live among us to show grace in this fallen world. He’s promised an eternal restoration, He remains with us in grace.
Station Eleven is well worth a read. It presents a disappointing picture of religion, but, after all, there are plenty of misleading religions. Besides, the wisdom it does present is not only harmonious with traditional Christianity, it is the kind of book to open ears to hear that wisdom.