Stale writing is one plague. Albert Camus’ book is another. A review of Station Eleven with a mention of Camus’ The Plague.
I was inspired by the best reviews to look at Station Eleven or STAᵗᶦᵒⁿ eLEᵛᵉⁿ by Mandel. I looked. Now I’m social distancing myself from it.
STAᵗᶦᵒⁿ eLEᵛᵉⁿ is a virus indeed, one known as mediocre writing, with major symptoms of flat footed, pot-banging clunkiness of word and scene sequences.
The symptoms begin on the first page as a close-reading demonstrates. Here’s what I mean: Jeevan stands in the theater, an usher is immediately there (highly doubtful because an usher would think someone is leaving and wait a bit to see what was going on. Time here and going forward is uneven). Jeevan “pushed the usher aside,” a cliche phrase that makes little sense as Jeevan would have walked around or by him and an usher would have not been stage-side of the aisle having come from the back. Suddenly a second usher was coming which “forced Jeevan to throw himself at the stage” (The author means that Jeevan attempted to scramble up onto the stage. In doing so Jeevan would have thrown himself onto the stage not at it. Also, this dropping of hyperbolic verbs only distracts, although I suspect authors think such words provide energy). Jeevan, half on and off the stage (I’m already yawning because this is so “writerly” and predictable) is tugged at by the second usher (yawn getting bigger) and then Jeevan (miraculously, like the hand of God) catches the stricken actor mid-fall, (again we see how the time is skewed in service to astounding actions). Jeevan immediately knows, (somehow, maybe he reads minds) that the actor’s heart is not beating. Jeevan begins CPR (no further word on other actors or ushers).
When a cardiologist comes to aid, they both take time for formal introductions. (Even a toddler knows that people don’t do this in an emergency situation). Of course the weird pause or aside in the action is only cheap trick to get character names in early.
So basically, as usual with this sort of novel, we are asked not to close-read but to sort of skim to get the action, forgiving all glaring problems and contradictions, to just go with it.
To just go with what though? Am I asked to go with a failure of imagination and scene creation. When an author begs me to trust them and to believe in their created magic world, they are required, in my view, to create and sustain the illusion. This in turn means they must outthink, outimagine me, the reader, on every single element of the novel. Sloppiness as I just detailed is also located located, I think, in a writer attempting to write according to conventions, for example starting in medias res and thinking they are moving the story along, even if that movement requires unrealistic action and time. I always picture, when reading hooey like this, an editor hollaring ‘quick, speed it up and make it easy for readers who want action.’
STAᵗᶦᵒⁿ eLEᵛᵉⁿ by Emily St. John Mandel made me realize how much better Crichton in Andromeda Strain is at this game, for example, to choose a book that seems to conquer the style more successfully.
The novel’s Georgian flu is only a frame within which to set a sort of soap opera with trimmings of an affair, murder, and mystery. Depth is lacking regarding characters who might reflect or be driven by morals, ethics and philosophy, let alone consider what it means on a true human level to suffer through or survive a plague.
There are a lot of fantasy and sci fi writers by youngish adults who admit in forums they don’t read much and to be blunt, it shows in their writing. I’d place STAᵗᶦᵒⁿ eLEᵛᵉⁿ on the same shelf labeled no ear, no voice. Author Toby Litt wrote in the Guardian, “Your friends and family will love your tricks, because they love you. But try busking those tricks on the street. Try busking them alongside a magician who has been doing it for 10 years, earning their living. When they are watching a magician, people don’t want to say, ‘Well done.’ They want to say, ‘Wow.’” (1) Yes, all tricks and no finesse makes Jack a dull read.
It didn’t take me long to know that this was a book I wouldn’t find particularly compelling and nothing changed my mind.
Having shaken that off, I moved on to Albert Camus’ great novel The Plague and guess what? At the end of Part III we’re back to the stage. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux is at a performance the Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice. Indications of problems for Oprheus in the second act are seen by careful observers, tremolos not in the score, some jerky movements. Then the big duet of the opera’s third act arrives and Orpheus staggers grotesquely and drops dead.
Well, isn’t that a coinkydink. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it.
The Plague is a very interesting novel, one concerned with morality and conduct by either groups or individuals and certainly it resonates now, while we are in the midst of covid-19 quarantines. No wonder the Italian literary magazine ActuaLitté reported sales of the novel in Italy have recently tripled.
(1) Litt, T. (May 20, 2016). What makes bad writing. The Guardian.