STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St. John Mandel. Alfred A. Knopf, 333 pp., $24.95.
The end is nigh, again: Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven" joins the swollen ranks of literary-minded novels chronicling the world's last days. It boasts several well-drawn characters, though its version of life after the end is sketchy at best, and Mandel seems more comfortable in the here and now.
The book's primary characters are connected by a web of coincidence to Arthur Leander, a movie star who dies onstage in his 50s while playing King Lear the night before a flu epidemic kills pretty much everybody. Mandel does a fine job of putting the reader in the shoes of Arthur, the twitty philandering actor; a leathery badass named Kirsten who is also, somehow, a postapocalyptic theatrical ingénue; and a gay executive called Clark who decides to build a museum for a bygone culture (ours).
"Station Eleven" is a study in contrasts, and not always in contrasts the author means to invite. Mandel, for instance, has worked out very carefully the number of days a paramedic and his disabled brother can survive off a van full of groceries, but a middle-age executive easily begins "planting crops" to feed hundreds. Twenty years after the collapse of the cash economy, an itinerant actor, part of a mobile theater called the Traveling Symphony, nervously jingles a pocketful of change. Individually these are small nits to pick, but they accumulate into exasperation over 300-some pages.
Mandel's Armageddon seems to have civilized people, rather than the opposite. "There was a reminder" in the first newspaper of the new world, she writes, "that the library was always seeking books, and that they paid in wine." On the back page of that same paper is a lengthy interview with an actress whose production of "King Lear" has traveled through the newspaper's hometown. Imagine: Libraries! Newspapers!
Another irony: The contrast between the new world and the old emphasizes the triviality of celebrity gossip and Hollywood when compared with the life-or-death future and the realer theater of the Symphony's Shakespeare performances; but Mandel gives much fuller body to the old, shallow world than the rich new one. Arthur's first wife, Miranda, is the focus of the book's best sections, and her private art project -- a comic book called "Doctor Eleven" -- gives the book its title. She doesn't make it past the plague. More's the pity.
Mandel sticks the landing. Plot threads are illuminated, villains get what's coming to them, the species might take another step forward. It's a complex book, despite its various missteps, but its greatest virtue is a signal one: Mandel is able to imagine something that comes after doom.
Next topic, please.