May 16, 2015

Emily St John Mandel at AWF15

        Auckland Writers Festival


A “very nice, polite apocalypse"

Parnell Library’s Laura Caygill sits in on Emily St John Mandel and Jolisa Gracewood, and provides us with a report and a recommendation:

 Canadian author Emily St John Mandel can’t understand why everyone thinks her books are so nice. “I did kill off 99% of the population with a super-flu”, she muses, wondering how much more brutal she could have been towards her characters in her award-winning novel Station Eleven.

 I was looking forward to hearing Mandel, having read the post-apocalyptic novel in three sittings. I could have happily read it in one, had sleep not got in the way.

 In conversation with Jolisa Gracewood, Mandel was typically (she is Canadian, after all) delightful. Trained as a dancer, she grew up on a small island in British Columbia and now lives and writes in New York. One of the reasons I loved Station Eleven, and it’s something Gracewood alluded to, was the gentleness of the telling of the tale. Mandel focuses on the normalcy of the pandemic and its aftermath, rather than the action of it.

As Gracewood noted, her characters are all stranded in different ways – from their previous lives, from their friends, geographically (petrol has gone stale in the years following the Georgia Flu), and culturally. The Travelling Symphony, the Shakespeare troupe at the centre of the novel, attempts to bridge these gaps, roaming the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in a horse-drawn pickup truck that bears the motto “survival is insufficient”. According to Mandel it’s a line taken from a 1999 episode of "Star Trek Voyager"; the pieces of life to survive this superbug are beautifully random.

 To say that Station Eleven’s is a “very nice, polite apocalypse” (as Mandel self-deprecatingly quipped) is missing the point a bit. This isn’t an action novel. Indeed it’s not even intended to be science fiction. Her previous books have been variously labelled as crime and literary noir, which she puts down to their “crime elements”. Wanting to avoid being pigeonholed as a crime writer she intended her next work to look at the “extraordinary things” in the world we live in. She decided that “the best way to write about the spectacular apparatus of technology that surrounds us was to write about its absence”, and thus Station Eleven was born.

 Like her characters one gets the sense Mandel feels stranded by genre allocations. She is, I believe, much closer to fellow Arthur C. Clarke award winner Margaret Atwood in bridging the gap between literary and genre fiction than any labels (as well as her recent endorsement from George R. R. Martin) might suggest. Mayhem, murder and – yes – a flu pandemic that travels across the globe in mere days, are, she says, “best rendered with the lightest possible touch”.

syndetics-lcIf you haven’t already, do read Station Eleven. Mandel’s light touch means the book’s 333 pages are ones to curl up with and enjoy. Just maybe listen to the author’s advice first: “It should come with a warning sticker – don’t read this on an aeroplane”.

-- Laura

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 10:12
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