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Emily St John Mandel, and Swirling Complexity

I love it when a book that you’re forced to read becomes fun. And then you like that book so much that you read some of the author’s other books. This happened to me with Station Eleven, by Emily St. John. I had to read for class. I would call it dystopia, but we learned about it as science fiction, which I guess is fair enough. It’s a very clever book, and quite a lovely one, considering how it write about unspeakably horrible events.


But how do you go on in the face of horror? How do you keep living when existence is uncertainty? What motivates people to be a good person—and what is a good person, really?

These are some of the questions that Station Eleven raises. I found the writing compelling, and wanted to read more of her books. So I quickly found some audiobooks at the library. I read The Singer’s Gun first because I liked the title, and then I read The Lola Quartet, which I finished a few days ago and now I hope to read last night in Montreal soon.

There is something quite good about consuming much of an author’s oeuvre in quick succession. Mandel isn’t writing series, but there are still threads which run through her books.

For one thing, all of her books are told in jumpy ways, flicking from character to character and time to time in third person. I really like close third as a narration style, and enjoyed all the books for that alone. The Lola Quartet and The Singer’s Gun occupy about the same genre—literary thriller would probably be the best word for it—and though Station Eleven is a bit different, it still has those same markers.

We’ve been talking lots about genre in the class I read Station Eleven for and I should probably be studying right now lololol. While we can deliberate the edges of genre, the truth is that genres cross over. There are science fiction novels with detective elements; satirical plays with mystery and science fiction element, romantic poems which also have a touch of the Gothic. Genre’s don’t have hard boundaries.

Because I’ve been thinking about it lots, I’ve sort of come to my own conclusions about genre too, and they are this: genre is more about labelling what a reader wants from a book. Do they want to learn? Do they want to escape? Do they want to laugh? Of course, This isn’t a conscious then, and really I want a mix of things from any book I read. Reading Mandel though, I think, made me forget what I wanted because I was so swept up into the intricate relationships and dilemmas which creates.

In Mandel’s world, right and wrong are blurred together. There are no easy choices. The ending of all her books are masterful because they are narratively right, but morally complicated. That can be screwed up—for instance, the ending of the movie Stardust. It makes sense in a narrative way, but absolutely undermines the character development, so that the escapism is not enough. But Mandel knows what she is doing, and does it well.

What I wanted from Station Eleven was information to fill out a worksheet so that going to lectures and tutorials would be worth my time. What I got was delicately crossed human lives, tangled histories, meditations on memory, mystery, and the unknowable. The story was compelling, because it was a good story and it was a clever; beyond that, it reminded me about how complicated people are. That made me want to read more of what she’s written, to delve into her backlist and explore further.

There is a lot of talk about representation, and many of those conversations are so vital and I am so glad that they are happening. But the truth is this: no single piece of media can accurately represent the many nuances of human experience and it is unfair for us to expect them to. However, though they’re not perfect, Mandel’s books create complexity rather than reducing it. This is a microcosm of a snarled and chaotic world, they seem to say, and there is a delight in this rejection of simplicity.

I think this is the reason I keep reading: for books that surprise and compel me, but make me think. I want a lot of things out of books. I want to learni about the world, I want to ask questions, I want to be entertained. Emily St. John Mandel writes with precision and care. Whether she’s writing about gangs, mafias, or plagues, she never forgets that she is writing about people, and planets, which hurt in different ways.

have you read any of emily st john mandel’s books? Obviously, you totally should. What are books that remind you of complexity?


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