Sunday, May 3, 2015

Consideration of Works Present: Station Eleven

(Picture from here.)

This is the first of a new set of Considerations: contemporary works. Why I'm doing this is discussed here. On with it:

It’s a curious thing to feel alone in the wilderness for so long and then find a companion.

Let me explain.

We all have favorite authors. People we can always turn to and read for enjoyment or understanding or technique. I have those: Mark Twain, Alfred Bester, Clifford Simak, William Faulkner, Earnest Hemingway.

Still, years ago, when I was first forming an idea of how stories worked and how I wanted to make them, I ran into John Dos Passos’ Manhatten Transfer. It made a huge impact on me though it was some time before I could articulate it.

I’m one of those people that rip through an author when I find them and Dos Passos was no exception. This culminated in reading ChosenCountry, which I’ve talked about in great length here.

Chosen Country was the book I read that finally formed the core of what I wanted to do with longer works.
John Dos Passos used a technique that is not terribly in fashion these days. He used multiple points of view to explore something larger than any combination of characters could explore on his own. This meant that the reader was an accomplice in the act of the novel. Kurt Vonnegut said it succinctly, if somewhat disparagingly, on the first page of God Bless You Mister Rosewater: "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees."

John Brunner tried this technique in Stand on Zanzibar but I don’t think he fully captured it.

I’ve written several books but only two have seen print: Caliban Landing and Slow Lightning. Both take little swats at the technique in that the larger story is intended to be in the mind of the reader but only partially grasped by the characters in the work. Nearly every novel I’ve written since has been an attempt to grasp this nettle. This might have something to do with why they aren’t published.

So I picked up StationEleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

This is a novel about a disease driven apocalypse. It plots the course of its characters from just before the apocalyptic event, through its aftermath to a relatively calm point later in time. It's a little cozy, I admit. It gets through the rough part and stops just before the left over relics of the past civilization begin to decay. It's an interesting apocalyptic arc-- not the one I'm most interested in, myself. I like somewhat later, after all the crash and fury when the relics themselves are becoming useless and people must come up with new solutions. But that's not the point and not the reason this novel is interesting. She has brought the Dos Passos technique into the 21st century.

Somewhere about half way through the novel I realized what she was attempting. My first thought at the end was: My God. She did it.

The problem in adapting the Dos Passos technique to a more modern audience is character. Dos Passos did a good job painting the environment his people worked in, what they did, the social environment they worked in and their motivations. But the style of the times did not delve deeply into psychological presentation the same way modern fiction does. Dos Passos largely wrote before Norman Mailer, Philip K Dick or Margaret Atwood.

Not to say he didn’t do good characterization. He did. But the nature of characterization has changed since then.
There has been an attempt over the years to attempt something called a braided novel. This looks similar to the Dos Passos technique but is not quite the same thing. The difference lies in the larger story. In a braided novel, a common story is told across common points of view. In a Dos Passos novel, there is no common story. There is a telling, to be sure. But it’s about something other than a story. Manhatten Transfer is about New York City. U.S.A. is about America. Chosen Country is about the nature of love. But there is no common story linking the characters in any of the novels.

For example, one might tell the story of the American revolution through the eyes of multiple characters. The revolution itself has a story: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. The characters are different perspectives on the story of the revolution. That’s a braided novel.

But stories are not the only kind of organizing principle around which people collect. Cities, countries, theoretical physics, also collect people. Refusing to push the organizing principle into story form and letting the characters follow their own path and then letting those paths speak to some larger issue is a different kettle of fish.

As I said before, Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel where the population of the world is devastated. It begins with a death on stage a couple of weeks prior to the disaster and ends thirty years later. It follows about a dozen or so characters through the process. Some characters interact. Some have common history. Some do not. Some disappear mysteriously like so many other dying people in the book. Some never realize their connections. They do not know the story. Only the reader knows the story.

Mandel is talking about loss and recovery, disaster and adaptation, but none of the characters knows more than their own slice of the tale. After all, most of it happens after the loss of any possible distance communication between them. Consequently, their connections must remain mysterious to one another.

But not to the reader.

This was the Dos Passos genius that Mandel seems to be channeling. To tell individual stories that, through the braiding speaks to the larger idea. The threads are disconnected from one another and broken in time. Some directly tend to reflect what Mandel’s interested in. Some reflections are harder to see.

Go read it.

1 comment:

  1. A dear friend just gave me this book for my birthday; I haven't started reading it yet. I will now plan on reading it next. (The "to be read" pile is kinda high at the moment.)