Sunday, January 11, 2015

What I was reading when the power went out


The tragic late-December wind storm knocked out electricity for many of us in the northstate, at least for a while, and the steady reports on our cellphones of the loss of life and destruction of property created a sense of somber amazement. We yearned to “get back to normal,” but for some that will never happen.

What if that would never happen for anyone on earth? What if a deadly virus, far more potent than Ebola, enveloped us, leaving only a handful alive? Those are the questions addressed in an extraordinary book by Emily St. John Mandel called “Station Eleven” ($24.95 in hardcover from Knopf; also for Amazon Kindle). As the power flicked off, I found myself deep in the last few chapters of the book.

The story straddles before and after, weaving together the lives of those somehow connected with one Arthur Leander, who, at 51, is playing Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto when he abruptly dies onstage of a heart attack, leaving behind three ex-wives and a comic book, Station Eleven, drawn by his first wife, Miranda.

She gets the message of Arthur’s demise while in Malaysia. Then come the reports of a deadly virus making its way to North America, spreading everywhere. Almost no one is immune. “This was during the final month,” St. John Mandel writes, “of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.”

Afterward, “no more pharmaceuticals”; “no more flight”; “no more countries”; “no more Internet.”

Two decades later, “the caravans of the Traveling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky” near Lake Michigan. The small group stops at mostly deserted towns to play classical music and stage Shakespeare. And a little girl once in Arthur’s Lear is now one of that company.

The comic book Arthur had given her will play a key role in a world fraught with violence--but tinged with grace. Too close to home, I’m thinking, with these musings stationed right here, coincidentally of course, on the eleventh [of January, when the review was first published].

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