This passage is taken from the 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily Mandel.
From the outset of the passage the reader is given information about the setting which establishes mood and location. The passage is set ‘twenty years after the end of air travel’. A reader immediately recognises a common trope of Dystopian Literature in that the passage is clearly set in the future, but a future in which the conditions in which people live have been reduced with a subsequent loss of technological knowledge. This is reminiscent of a number of Dystopias such as Mac Carthy’s The Road, Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Wyndham’s The Chrysalids to name three. The description of ‘caravans’ and the ‘symphony’ are perhaps reminiscent of the world of Riddley Walker, with itinerant players reproducing the Punch and Judy plays as a means of connection with the lost world.
The conditions in which the travelers are living are harsh and hostile: The heat is described both as metaphorically ‘white-hot’ and then again in a more prosaic yet equally alarming clarity as ‘106 Fahrenheit, 41 Celsius. We note that the thermometer is ‘twenty-five-year old’ suggesting a date for the event which plunged the society back into this un-technological state. Within this world, the travelers are surrounded by trees which ‘pressed in close’ suggesting further stifling actions and which also are seen to have ‘erupted’ through the pavement. Nature is reclaiming the manmade world and doing so in a violent fashion – the verb suggesting speed and violence in equal measure. Just as in The Road, where we see the manmade infrastructure of modern USA returning to the wilderness, so here, the same action is evidently taking place. However there is contrast – trees provide shade and the leaves are described as’ soft’ as they are ‘brushing’ the legs of horses and Symphony alike’. This gentle description of the emerging foliage possibly suggests that there is hope for the future and that some succour will be found in time as nature reclaims the land. At this point, though, the landscape is seen as dangerous – or in the typically understated tone of this narrative as ‘questionnable territory’.
Perhaps for this reason the group contains scouts who carry ‘weapons’ and there is a recognition that this group serve to protect the ‘Symphony’ – a group of travelling players, it seems- named after the prime artistic endeavour of the 19th century – the musical whole- who seem to be made up both of musicians and actors. Names are shared and the passage focuses on and elderly ‘director’: Gil, aged 72, and two other players: Kirsten and August. The latter name conferring a level of respect on the character with its meaning of reverence and carrying its root back to the Roman emperor Augustus. This man is seen as both a musician and an actor and also as a ‘secret poet’, an interesting designation. This is a time in which to be a poet was thing to be kept hidden, possibly because of the overt exploration of private emotion to be found in that art form. The narrator is not named – a third person narrator, seemingly omniscient tells of this unusual group of artists trekking slowly across America in the past tense. Presumably their fate is known to the narrator and the reader is engaged in finding out what will happen to the group. In many Dystopian novels the narrators or the protagonists are deliberately ordinary citizens, working in ordinary jobs – Winston Smith, for example. Here the characters are far from ordinary, and seem also to have lost an element of their identity – not only are there no surnames, but another character is referenced solely as the ‘seventh guitar’ – no name, no identification, only a job.
The characters are suffering a degree of deprivation – their shoes made from ‘automotive tyre’ which helps to explain the condition of the vehicles in which they travel. These wagons, the caravans of the Symphony, are made from functional 21st Century vehicles, such as ‘pick-up trucks’, chosen for their capacity rather than for their comfort. They have been stripped back to the basic level of function and now resemble the covered-wagons in which the American pioneers crossed the continent in the 19th Century. We learn that gasoline has come to an end, recalling again The Road and also that the trucks are pulled by horses, much as John Wyndham writes in his novel ‘The Chrysalids’. Practicality is evident in that despite the stripping-out of weight, the toughened glass remains as protection against an unnamed potential foe. As in so many tales of a ‘fallen world’, danger lies everywhere.
Kirsten and August pass time by running lines from their production: King Lear. Again a layer is added to the intertextual subtext here as we recall a banished King wandering on the heath and slowly losing his wits as a medium for recognising the fragility and vanity of the world he has lost – the ‘pomp’ of the royal court. We assume that the message here is not dissimilar and that the Symphony are recognising the overblown and empty grandeur of the mechanised 21st century world, now ‘rendered useless’.
Their journey is laborious and dangerous. The heat is ‘relentless’ and they need to rest the horses ‘more frequently than anyone would have liked’ suggesting a compulsion both of time and also of potential danger on their journey. We know they are at Lake Michigan, but we know no end-point for the journey in this section of text, and we recall that for many, the end point is not known. For The Man and The Boy in The Road, the West Coast is a potential destination which takes on great spiritual significance. In this passage, the Symphony just walk, ‘weapons in hand’. They talk little. The only direct speech is in the form of the lines from Lear and a statement from Gil relating the action of their walking to performing on stage. There is a sense of a world with the comfort removed – the ‘tarps’ have been painted ‘gunmetal grey’ a far-cry from the painted caravans of a travelling circus or the groups in Riddley Walker, and the vehicles have lost their comfort: the glass is a necessity and the seats removed, replaced by a bench on the roof. The name of the group – printed in capitals for emphasis – acts almost in the same way as a red cross sign – a request to leave them unmolested since they come in peace.
The passage is written in an understated manner though in no way similar to the terseness which categorises MacCarthy’s writing. There is little figurative language, and moments are often undercut by the choice of language, possibly as euphemism, to avoid unnecessary fear developing. To this end, the danger of the ‘questionable territory’ is described also as ‘fraught’ and the glass is left because it is ‘nice to have somewhere relatively safe to put the children’. In this phrase the weak adverb ‘nice’ is further reduced in impact by the adjective ‘relatively’ before the sentence reaches its true purpose by the arrival of the noun ‘children’ -the only mention of the children in the passage which has focused solely on adults of indeterminate age to this point. It is as though the passage is narrated in a tone designed to reduce the potential anxiety of the actual situation. The sentence length increases with added subordination in the fifth paragraph as the narrator seeks to give explanations for some of the changes being made -the reader becomes increasing complicit, therefore as he understands and accepts the rationales behind the vehicles being described.
The passage considers the difficulty found in surviving in post-apocalyptic world. The passage gains more interest in that the survivors focused upon carry the cultural capital of society with them. In this they resemble Riddley Walker himself – often ignorant of the heritage of the culture he carries yet driven to defend it. There is no overt Christian message or sense of a coming redemption here, just a struggle for survival of a culture, the current enemy of which is Nature itself.