Yes, I read another post-apocalyptic novel where civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. But in my defense, there’s Shakespeare! And comics!
The novel begins when Arthur, a fiftyish actor who is finally old enough to play King Lear, has a heart attack onstage. A young man in the audience who is training to be an EMT tries to help, and winds up comforting a small girl involved in the production after the ambulance takes Arthur away.
On his way home, the young EMT-to-be gets a call from a friend who works in a hospital, who warns him that an epidemic has broken out and that he should hole up at home and not talk to anyone. Since he knows this friend is not normally an alarmist, he stocks up on supplies and heads to his brother’s house to wait out the scare. From here, the story is taken up by several different characters – Kirsten, the young girl who was onstage with Arthur when he had his heart attack, Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife, and Clark, a friend of Arthur’s. We piece together from their stories of the present, future and past how all of these characters are connected, and what happened before, during and after the flu pandemic.
This novel is beautiful. I know it should be depressing, and yes, 99 percent of the population dies in the first few chapters, but what happens in the aftermath is not as bleak as you’d expect. Civilization as it was known disappears, communications between communities is limited to what news can be gleaned from travelers, and technology more sophisticated than hand tools is no longer of any use – but somehow, the survivors survive, the world goes on, and there’s still classical music and Shakespeare being performed, so really, how bad could it be? Plus there’s a graphic novel (loosely inspired by Spaceman Spiff from Calvin and Hobbes) which inspires two of the characters – one to make art, the other to start a cult. And did I mention the museum one of the characters starts – in an airline lounge, with cell phones and other useless devices as exhibits? And best of all, all of these things are connected, even if the people involved don’t know it. I only wish that the book had pictures, because the author’s descriptions of the graphic novel’s illustrations sound incredible. (Artists – make Station 11 the comic happen. Please.)
What reads like this? Well, the post-apocalyptic elements make it sort of like Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, or Roth’s Divergent. But the writing style for some reason reminded me of Ann Patchett – maybe because the story is vaguely similar to Bel Canto, where the world has gone to hell but art keeps the survivors going?