How do you choose what worlds to get emerged in? I finished a book last week and I’m having a hard time moving on. My book selections are pretty random, but afterward I usually see the beautiful symmetry of adding this particular world to the thousands of worlds I already hold within. A Facebook link led me to a Buzz-whatever like list of books that “contain horror in completely ordinary settings” and I am so down with that. Of Station Eleven: A novel they said, “that moment of genuine terror when the internet goes out forever in this post-apocalyptic world.”
For all my talk of wanting to usher in a new evolution of consciousness more aligned with the planet we live on, I’m not really into dystopian, post-apocalyptic books. They are too bleak and lack the beauty I crave in my worlds. I devoured The Hunger Games, and moved on. I’m happy that the movies are somehow better. But it’s not somewhere I want to live. I went into Station Eleven blind and found something I did not expect: a love letter to the times we live in.
Maybe post-apocalyptic books are boring to me because I know I won’t be around to see it. I would, without a doubt, be one of those to perish within the first few awful days of the collapse. If the world is going to absolute shit, hunger and mayhem, I would be running towards the blast just to get it over with. So reading about survivors in their terrible limited circumstances, with violent death and hunger the main driving forces, that’s just not worth sticking around for to me. Maybe it’s my suicidal tendencies speaking, who knows. But here author Emily St. John Mandel lifts a beautiful quote from Star Trek to guide her survivors – survival is insufficient. In Station Eleven’s world the surviving artists create a traveling acting troupe that preforms Shakespeare plays in the American wilderness after the collapse, and that is beauty in breakdown.
The book is a series of snapshots, tying the past and the present together. At the center of it all is an aging actor who collapses on stage while performing King Lear, and within a day the world collapses, too, from a deadly virus that sweeps the planet in matter of days. Mandel’s writing is beautiful and engaging, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow until the character of Miranda was introduced. She was the aging actor’s first wife, some 20 years ago, and all of a sudden the book takes on a tabloid insider’s perspective, with a young, small-town girl trying to make a home in Hollywood with a famous husband. Station Eleven is her creation, a graphic novel within the novel, about a post-apocalyptic society surviving in outer space. Her marriage only lasts three years, but Miranda spends 20 years working on the world of Station Eleven. She shows it to no one. To me, Station Eleven is a book about artists. It’s about finding your place in the world, and losing it, then finding it again. It’s about taking the world, this world, for granted. Throughout the book, you mourn the passing of civilization. You are reminded, with awe, how amazing running hot water is, how fantastic the grocery store is, and how fortunate we are to be able to care about tiny, insignificant things. You become nostalgic about things still available to you. Then endlessly grateful when you look up from the page.
That’s quite an accomplishment, using only words. It also made me doubt myself as a writer. I don’t know if I have the power to evoke all of these things using just my words. It’s hard sometimes, to know in the marrows of your bones that you are an artist, but then so often feeling so impotent to express it. If you do not create, are you truly an artist? Or just a wannabe.
I didn’t know what to read afterward, so I went back to the books I’ve been meaning to pick back up for a while. The books that shaped me as a writer, when I was still too young to worry about such things. I was a library kid from a very early age. When I was 9 or 10, in fourth grade, my class took a field trip five minutes down the street to our local small-town library and signed everyone up for their very own library card. I think I was the only one who used mine regularly. A few times a month I would spend an hour after school just browsing the isles by myself. I found Elfquest that way. I discovered Anne Rice and her vampires. And eventually I found find Francesca Lia Block, and suddenly all my unfinished ideas about a faraway land called Los Angeles and Hollywood would snap into focus and light up in technicolor. Block writes, or wrote, modern day fairy-tales set in Los Angeles, very teenage angst-y, sometimes supernatural, sometimes just weird, but always beautiful and enchanting. It became my holy site and I spent my 20’s making pilgrimage trips to an overpopulated desert wasteland. Her style of writing seeped into my blood, but there is one book that does Block-esque writing even better than Block herself: the first 25 pages of White Oleander by Janet Fitch. It’s literally everything I have ever aspired to write. An artist goddess in white silk kimonos and blue gauze dresses, who floats through the art scene of Los Angeles in complete control, ruled only by the Santa Anas winds and the poisonous desert flowers in bloom. It’s the ghost of most things I have written. And I tried to re-visit it with an adult mind, but I’m still swept away, still want to live in this particular world.
These days I’m trying to find beauty in the unfinished journey. As long as you strive, you are still an artist. The finished work may or may not come. May or may not find an audience to inspire, but in this fleeting life you attempted to make thoughts into something real, something tangible.