Things been running to the apocalyptic of late, from the elections and global warming to Ebola and The Walking Dead. So perhaps it's no surprise that my to-read list brought me two ballyhooed dystopian novels back-to-back, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and California by Edan Lepucki. (I'm also working my way through the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, but that's another post.)
I'm not the only one reading in the field of doom. Station Eleven is a National Book Award nominee, and California got a big boost when Stephen Colbert pimped it to support publisher Hachette in its fight with Amazon.
I'm glad I read Station Eleven before picking up Janet Maslin's unusually wrong-headed review. I'm also glad I read it before California, which might have put me off the whole genre for a while.
Superficially, the two books have a lot in common. Each pits its heroes and heroines against a cultish group that has turned to atavistic violence. They share that and a lot of other genre tropes with The Walking Dead and the modern giant of the end-of-the-world genre, Stephen King's The Stand. But neither one fits comfortably on the horror shelf.
The novel that Station Eleven most reminded me of is, in fact, Jennifer Egan's acclaimed A Visit from the Goon Squad, which despite a few futuristic touches was essentially a straight literary novel. Both play with time and the contrasting viewpoints of a web of interconnected characters. Both are about what you hold onto over the years, connections made and lost, the human version of the butterfly effect. If anything, Station Eleven seems a little less jaded than Egan's book, maybe because it's about the end of the world and not something really terrible like the music business.
(NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD.)
Station Eleven starts out as a middle-aged actor named Arthur Leander collapses while playing King Lear in Toronto, artificial snow falling down around him. A few folks gather in the lobby bar after he's been carted away, not knowing that his death is the least of the night's tragedies. Maslin chose the right lines to quote: Of all of them at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.
Something called the Georgia flu has entered Toronto that same night, and not only the city but the world as we know it will be nearly wiped out. Mandel does deliver some action scenes as her characters cope with the catastrophe, but they're spread out through an otherwise almost delicate book that flashes forward and back from that night.
The bulk of the narrative takes place perhaps twenty years after the flu's arrival, when Kirsten, once a child actress in Leander's Lear, has become a leading light of the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag group that brings performances of Beethoven and Shakespeare to the scattered villages of the dystopian future. It sounds precious and it is, a bit. But there's something here of that final aria in The Goldfinch as well, a genuine sense of the importance of art to people trying hard to retain their souls. This is reflected in Kirsten's obsession with a comic book series about a lost world, which turns out to have been drawn mainly as a hobby by the first of Leander's three wives. Also tangled in the story are Jeevan, a papparazzo turned aspiring paramedic who tried to revive Leander on stage, and a variety of other characters, some of whom end up living at a midwestern airport where they were stranded by the flu, as if Walter Kirn's Up in the Air ended badly.
The novel's pulpier scenes include a few showdowns on the road with baddies dispatched by gun and arrow a la Walking Dead. But what's haunting here arrives without violence, such as a dying woman's last night on a Pacific beach, staring at the lights of a ghost fleet a few miles offshore. When you turn the final page of this poignant and surprisingly lovely novel, you'll know something has happened to you.
California, on the other hand, makes considerably less of its tale of hardy survivors, at slightly greater length. Cal and Frida have repaired to the Golden State's wilderness after society's collapse amid freaky weather and other vaguely described malfunctions. (The freaky weather doesn't follow them to the woods, oddly enough.) Despite their mellow, back-to-the-land 1970s-ish lifestyle, with sex as their main recreation, Cal and Frida's existence is fraught with loneliness and peril, which Lepucki sketches convincingly. Finally they venture to join a nearby commune hidden behind a Maginot Line of mysterious, giant, spiky sculptures.
The big reveal: The commune's leader is Micah, Frida's long-lost brother and Cal's college buddy, believed to have died as a suicide bomber back in the contentious days when the world was falling apart. His welcome is, mmm, complicated. This is one of those spooky villages where everyone knows something they're not talking about, and the smiling man at the podium has dark secrets. Cal and Frida have a secret too - she's preggo, and that could be a problem in the community, which is mysteriously free of children. Needless to say, shit eventually goes sideways.
Apparently Lepucki's book wasn't expected to do much before the Colbert endorsement. A Times feature says California "was assigned to an editor with almost no experience." It shows. Someone with a sharper scalpel might have cut away all the flashbacks about Micah and Cal's days at college and the blather about the mysterious group of prankster/terrorists Micah blew himself up for. These sections are vague and portentious and unconvincing, without much impact on the narrative. I suspect there's a lean, action-oriented version of Frida and Cal's story buried in here that didn't require so much backstory or even a previous connection to Micah. But unlike so many fictional proprietors of post-apocalyptic refuges, Lepucki was unwilling or unable to kill her darlings.
As it is, I had mostly lost interest in Cal and Frida's fate by the time they made it to one of the novel's fortified "Communities," a clichéd Stepford-esque haven for the wealthy where they will be able to have their baby in peace and suburban contentment, as long as they don't ask too many questions. Give me the Traveling Symphony any day.