One of the unhappy and unexpected consequences of having dedicated myself to a writing life is that, for the most part, I enjoy books less now than I used to. I very rarely read just for fun. Oh, I mean to, of course. I read a lot. But reading is now an exercise on various different levels. On the one hand, I’m reading as a reader, that thing I’ve been since I was four years old, wanting to get swept up by that elusive alchemy of storytelling and character development that magically touches me in a way I can’t fully define. On the other hand, I’m reading as a writer, with layers of complex algorithms being run against a text line by line. Is the dialogue believable? Can I tell where this is going? Am I one step ahead of the writer because the clues are hamhanded? Is the pacing right, am I delighted by the language? If I know a book has been wildly successful, I calculate whether its fame is warranted by its merits. I am merciless, much too hard on writers now (as I am on myself), with any little slip taking me out of the narrative and telegraphing a lesson: note to self, don’t do X or Y. I try to turn it off, but I don’t know how. It happens to me during movies too. I am always conducting an analysis of the structure and execution of a story. As you can imagine, this sets the bar so high that I rarely finish a book delighted.
But every once in a while… oh, dear reader, to find the joy again. It happened to me early this year when I reread one of my favorite books of my adolescence with much trepidation, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’ve had some of the joys of my youth cut down by the new scythe of my writer’s analytical mind, and I wasn’t eager to have The Handmaid’s Tale redefined as something I had only liked when I didn’t know any better. So imagine my unadulturated delight to find that the book held up – more than that, actually, it revealed new layers of wonder. But that experience is uncommon. I have made it so that books more often disappoint me than not.
Imagine my sheer happiness at finding a book that not only never drops the ball, but reminds me of the magic of writing at every turn. That book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Wow. What a read.
Let me first say, before describing it, that I am not some infallible arbiter of taste. The deck was stacked for me, as an individual, to like this book: it is an end-of-civilization book. I have a deep fascination for books about what the world might be like if society as we currently know it went away. But within a genre that has books that have both filled me with wonder and boredom, this is among the best.
The story is this: twenty years after a deadly virus has killed off more than 99 percent of the human population, a troupe of actors and musicians travel the desolate landscape of the Midwest performing Shakespeare’s plays. On one of their horse-drawn vehicles is written their motto: “Because survival is insufficient.” (bonus points: it’s a Star Trek quote). They are railing against the darkness by trying to keep alive some of the most beautiful parts of the old world, It’s a secret nod too: Shakespeare also lived in a time of plague.
But this is not a tale simply about how people learn to hunt and grieve and ransack abandoned houses, although there’s all that. Pivoting expertly between the “current” time and the “past” (today’s world, just before the plague), the author gets us to care deeply about a group of people, many of which we know are already dead, one of whom we see die on the first few pages. The language is so pretty and the insights into each individual so complete that I have no idea how she pulled it off. As a National Book Award and Pen/Faulkner Award Finalist, she deserves all the kudos she gets. Complex, thoughtful, inspiring, sad, a true achievement.
As one who tinkers with words, I just had to read what her process was for putting together a story so expertly crafted and intricate, like handmade lace. In the Rumpus, Mandel said of her writing process: “I just sort of flail around in the dark. Lots of false starts. I start writing, mostly longhand, and at the end of a year I have a (wildly incoherent) first draft that I can then start to shape.”
How marvelous that someone who can put together a book so pretty talks about first flailing around in the dark. Hope for us all.
If you like words and intelligence, read this book!