Z1 Station Eleven
Amanda McClendon: I work for a largish public library system. Station Eleven and All the Light We Cannot See both have request lists in the lower dozens—more than most books in the stacks, but they’re not Fifty Shades or the next Harry Potter. They’ll both be book club reads; well-educated middle-class people will read the mess out of these (and have, if the New York Times bestseller lists are any indication). Someone will probably make a movie or an HBO miniseries out of them, or should, anyway. I feel like I should keep my copies for my yet-unborn children, because in the 2040s or ’50s some English professor will teach a class on the early-21st-century novel, and I feel like at least one of these will make it to that class. They’re both smart without being inaccessible.
ToB 2015 Reader Judge Amanda McClendon lives in Houston, Texas, where she works full-time for a library and part-time for a tiny Baptist church. You can read her random missives on religion, coffee, and Doctor Who on Twitter at @akmcclen. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”
It took me a while to get into the actual plot of Station Eleven. The prose itself is amazing: vivid and sensory without being a laundry list of description. And most of the characters and their interactions with one another felt real; these are people I could know, albeit ones thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Until the book’s third act, though, the storyline didn’t really cohere for me, the narrative strands touching briefly without actually interweaving with one another. (And actually, I felt the same way about the interviews in Silence Once Begun. which would have been an interesting foil to this.)
But then it clicked: I’d initially approached it as a straightforward sci-fi doomsday story, and so the thread about the actor Arthur and his long cord of failed relationships kept getting in the way. Except for the initial encounter between all the characters at the theater on Arthur’s last night, it felt like reading two entirely different books, a genre piece and a work of literary fiction. I don’t really know why it took me two thirds of the book to let go of that notion, but once I did, I got it. The survival of the human race in this book isn’t, in the end, the point. It’s the catalyst for a discussion of personal and cultural memory, personal and cultural loss, and how we are transformed by trauma.
I do have one major frustration: The prophet of the post-apocalypse felt more like a plot device, a last resort to figuratively tie up all those loose ends—Kirstin and her troupe and [guy’s name here] and the group at the airport—and less like a fully developed character. He’s treated as an archetype, making him less fleshed out than the other people in this story. But for this guided meditation, I owe Mandel and her band of wanderers a debt. (Also, my inner English undergraduate wants to go off on a tangent about the Shakespeare plays used in the book, King
Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. and how their themes weave into the overall effect of the book, but that’s an honors thesis waiting to happen. Any college kids reading this, you can have that one for free.)
I’ve been reading Anthony Doerr’s columns for The Morning News for ages and was already a fan when All the Light came out, so it was good to have a reason to bump it to the top of my to-be-read list. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good historical novel, especially when set in World War II. I burned through all 500-odd pages in a weekend, the chapters lasting about a minute or two apiece. If Station Eleven is a tapestry, All the Light is a film set; its world is so tangible I could almost taste it. Its present-tense narration made it feel somewhat cinematic to me, like I was watching the action in real time.
Marie-Laure and Etienne and Madame Manec’s affection for one another; their involvement in the resistance movement and their sheer giddiness in doing something, anything. to help the war effort; their grief for Marie-Laure’s father—I kept circling back around to their story, just for the joy and the sorrow displayed there. Marie-Laure’s experience of the world through sound and smell and taste reminded me in the best way of books I read as a kid, that delight in how the world works.
Werner’s story, though, I could have almost done without. Were it not for the fact that [spoiler] he saves Marie-Laure’s life near the end, I could have extracted him from the book entirely and would maybe have enjoyed it more. He’s so passive as a character, letting life happen to him until he finally makes a couple of crucial and ultimately tragic choices near the end. And the plotline of the lost diamond served mostly to create a sense of danger that wasn’t really necessary—for God’s sake, these people live during World War II in France, how much more danger do they need without this MacGuffin getting in the way?
I stayed for Doerr’s writing, though—I know the word “luminous” is so hacky, especially in reference to a book that plays with themes of light and vision, but it flipped some switch in my imagination. I mean: “Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.” “…a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey in the dark.”
Even still, a reader can’t live on beautiful sentences alone. Station Eleven ultimately had more substance for me, its characters more actively involved in deciding their own fates, their emotional lives more explored. Crazy cult leaders aside, its loose ends got tied up more securely for me. All the Light was pleasurable, but the ending and the interactions between Werner and Marie-Laure smacked too much of the manic pixie dream girl trope.
Station Eleven gets my vote. Fellow judges, you can take it from here.
All the Light We Cannot See