Narrator (in the voice of Rod Serling): There is a literary
dimension beyond that which is known to book critics. It is
the middle ground between light and shadow, between sci-fi
and literary fiction, and it lies between the pit of our fears and
the summit of our knowledge. This is the dimension of
imaginative writing that is uneasy about getting labeled as
imaginative writing. It is an area which we call the genre
Twilight Zone….

I think our faux Mr. Serling is referring to
those genre books that refuse to be genre
books. You know the ones I’m talking about?  
Have you read
The Time Traveler's Wife, a
hybrid between a sci-fi tale and a romance
story that never shows up in the sci-fi or
romance section of the bookstore? Or how
about
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a
dystopian horror novel with sci-fi ingredients
that would burn the hands of any librarian who
tried to put it on the shelf next to Lovecraft
and Matheson? Or all those fantasy-infused
novels by Haruki Murakami that we aren't
allowed to call fantasy books?

Add
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel to the list. This riveting
post-apocalyptic novel is loaded top to bottom with sci-fi elements,
but also maintains a firm and unyielding allegiance to the techniques
of highbrow literary fiction.  Perhaps it's fair to remove it from the
sci-fi shelves, but that raises the obvious question:  Is a book
disqualified from a genre label simply because it is well written?

Yet how can that be true?  Frankly, I have more interest in reading
books than labeling them. But I feel compelled to call attention to
the strange state of affairs in which brilliant science fiction novelists
such as China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi are excluded from the
world of literary fiction, but a clumsy sci-fi novel with lifeless
characters such as Howard Jacobson's
J gets listed for the
Booker Prize.  Put simply, these distinctions no longer make any
sense. I'm not sure they ever did.

I give credit to Ron Charles, editor of
The Washington Post’s
Book World, who tried to escape the twilight zone. When Station
Eleven
got nominated for a National Book Award, Charles noted
that it was "one of the very few sci-fi novels that have ever been
finalists for the NBA." But anyone familiar with the Twilight Zone
realizes that there is no escape. In this instance, author Emily St.
John Mandel took on the role of Rod Serling, and tweeted to
Charles: "I actually don’t think of Station Eleven as sci-fi."

At this juncture, I would like to cue
The Twilight Zone theme song….

No, you can’t escape from the genre Twilight Zone. It is so embedded
in how books are packaged, positioned and marketed nowadays that
I can't see any way out.  

But I come here not to label
Station Eleven, but to praise it. Whatever
you want to call this novel, it is worth reading. I can imagine sci-fi
fans enjoying it, but I could also recommend it to my wife, who cringes
at the very term sci-fi—hates it even more than discussions about
hi-fi or wi-fi. The plot of Mandel's book is filled with the kind of
fireworks we have come to expect from futuristic fiction, but at
every step along the way, the novel is character-driven, never
relying on jargon and gimmicks. Even the most extravagant
circumstances in the novel—and there are plenty—proceed with
a kind of emotional rightness that makes them feel plausible.

At first glance, Mandel seems to avoid the twilight zone in this book,
and instead juxtaposes two very different narratives, the first a
strictly realistic account of life before the plague, the second a
future-tripping tale of post-pestilential society. The reader
vaguely grasps, during the opening chapters of this novel, that
Mandel will try to connect these two narratives, but at first glance
they seem incompatible. On one hand, we have a tale of
glamorous celebrities and infidelities in the
TMZ-age, on the
other we grapple with survivors of a pandemic struggling to
maintain even a semblance of social order.

The inherent strangeness in
Station Eleven is evident at the outset,
when Mandel decides to start her dystopian novel with a performance
of
King Lear. Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor, has finally
reached the advanced age at which he can tackle the role of Lear.
But the play is marred by real-life tragedy, when Leander suffers a
fatal heart attack on stage. This account leads to flashbacks of
Leander's life, his career successes and failed marriages, his
friendships and betrayals.

A second narrative starts almost immediately after the
King Lear
performance, when a deadly flu spreads rapidly through society,
killing almost everyone within a few hours of exposure. In the span of
less than a week, the population is decimated, and the few survivors
face the dilemma of whether to hide out, and watch their food and
other supplies diminish, or to flee to some destination where the
situation might perhaps be less ominous. But where can you run
when the epidemic has already spread everywhere?

At first, the shifts from the flashbacks to the future events are shocking,
a kind of narrative of disjunction that threatens to tear this novel apart.
And to add to the heady mix, Mandel inserts a third story, a meta-
narrative about an outer space world known as Station Eleven, where
two hostile camps battle over the future of the colony. Should they
stay on their crippled artificial planet, or make their way back to
planet Earth, where the returnees face subjugation and oppression,
but also can savor the joys of a homecoming to
terra firma? This
story forms the plot of a comic book series concocted by Leander's
ex-wife Miranda, and for most of the novel the tale of her involvement
with Station Eleven lingers in the background as a peculiar sub-plot.

Each of these stories is compelling, but the reader experiences a
special pleasure when the incongruous narratives begin to interlink.  
The tale of actor Arthur Leander eventually helps unlock the mysteries
of post-apocalyptic America. The outer space tale of Station Eleven
takes on mythic significance and serves as a symbolic springboard
for many of the key themes of the novel. Even the Shakespearian
pageantry that enlivens the opening pages of Mandel's novel returns
in new garb at its conclusion.  All that is old becomes new again.

Perhaps we should create a new section in the bookstore for
Twilight Zone fiction of this sort.  Put
Station Eleven on the shelf
next to
1Q84, The Road, Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler's
Wife and the growing number of books that straddle the real and
the fantastic. Face it, many of the most interesting novels of recent
years would find a home on this betwixt-and-between section of
the store. Or perhaps even better, let's use this book to remind us
that science fiction novels can also be smartly written, and no
publisher ought to be hesitant about announcing that fact. Just
think: maybe this isn't just the age of Twilight Zone literature—perhaps
we are simply witnessing the start of a new Golden Age of science
fiction and fantasy.  


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His
next book, a history of love songs, will be published by Oxford
University Press.


Publication Date: December 23, 2014
Great Books Guide
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
Visit our sister sites:

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional or experimental
works of fiction

The New Canon
The best works of fiction published
since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
The best of fantasy, science fiction,
magical realism and alternative reality

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental, unconventional and
postmodern approaches to stories of
mystery and suspense
Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Great Books Guide
Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

Michel Houellebecq [click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Emily St. John Mandel [
click here]
Daniel Kehlmann [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Donna Tartt [
click here]
Eleanor Catton [
click here]
Marisha Pessl [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Zadie Smith [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Karen Walker [
click here]
Kurt Vonnegut [
click here]
Hari Kunzru [
click here]
Chad Harbach [
click here]
Chuck Palahniuk [
click here]
Ernest Cline [
click here]
Mark Haddon [
click here]
Bonnie Jo Campbell [
click here]
China Miéville [
click here]
V.S. Naipaul [
click here]
David Foster Wallace [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Bruce Machart [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Per Petterson [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Joseph Epstein [
click here]
Frederick Turner [
click here]
Tom Rachman [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Robert Stone [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Joshua Ferris [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Jedediah Berry [
click here]
Richard Russo [
click here]
Thomas Pynchon [
click here]
Reif Larsen [
click here]
Arthur Phillips [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Jayne Anne Phillips [
click here]
Geoff Dyer [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Jonathan Littell [
click here]
Daniel Suarez [
click here]
Jim Harrison [
click here]
José Saramago [
click here]
Toni Morrison [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Elizabeth Strout [
click here]
Chuck Klosterman [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Julian Barnes [
click here]
Marilynne Robinson
[click here]
Tim Winton [
click here]
Jonathan Miles [
click here]
Jhumpa Lahiri [
click here]
Joseph O'Neill [
click here]
Richard Price [
click here]
Tobias Wolff [
click here]
Donald Ray Pollock
[click here]
Charles Bock [
click here]
Geraldine Brooks [
click here]
Alan Bennett [
click here]
Mario Vargas Llosa [
click here]
Denis Johnson [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Ann Patchett [
click here]
Junot Diaz [
click here]
Matt Ruff [
click here]
Ryszard Kapuściński [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Jack Kerouac [
click here]
John Leland [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Khaled Hosseini [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Haruki Murakami [click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Michael Ondaatje [
click here]
Steven Hall [
click here]