Books about a post-pandemic United States are the literary world’s slow-burn hot topic, displacing zombie hoards as quietly as a viral infection invades its host. From Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006, to recent recruits like Laura van den Berg’s shiny-new Find Me, authors have taken up envisioning a world where there are few of us left to envision. Some books offer hope, and others (cough, McCarthy), imply that hope is for chumps. Each camp raises similar questions: what still matters when everything is lost? And, who are we when the veneer of civilization is stripped away?
Once the rawness of exposure fades, post-pandemic characters are left clinging to the remains (memory or physical) of those they love, their own survival, and above all: stories. The world can end, but stories will survive until the last human on earth (probably our narrator) runs out of breath to tell them. So, are we really talking about how fragile our society and sense of moral self is when authors use devastating diseases as their device-of-choice to leave characters metaphorically naked? Or are we discussing something more meta, like the importance of the story within a story, and the homes we create for ourselves inside those narratives? Station Eleven, Year of Wonders, and The Dog Stars are three pandemic novels that strike at the latter.
Station Eleven takes the meta-narrative of discussing stories in a story a step further, and brings in a conversation between characters and time-periods about the space made for creativity in the world, and our sense of belonging within that space. The book ebbs the reader from the future, where the world has been decimated by a strain of flu, to the past, where we see how the lives of characters began their paths toward intersection.
Before the flu, Miranda, ex-wife of famous actor Arthur Leander, spent her free time painting panels for her comic book series Dr. Eleven (another story about a creator within a story about an artist creating a story – STORCEPTION). The process of her very-private art as a painter/author is contrasted with Arthur’s very public art as a film star. Mandel portrays the public’s desire for Arthur and his resulting inflated ego as the wedge that drives the couple apart, despite their mutual pursuit for a space in the world to create. Their relationship crumbles without a shared sense of home and what builds it.
Kirsten, a 20-something in post-pandemic America, acts in a traveling symphony that strives to preserve “what was best about the world,” which includes classical music and Shakespeare. Kirsten's home is a tent and a horse-pulled truck bed, encapsulated by the stability of the symphony's scripted shows and schedules. Kirsten lives in a world that has seemingly eradicated the need for art and replaced the higher pursuits with the base needs of survival, (Maslow and all that).
Jeevan is a pre-pandemic photographer who became a paparazzo to earn his living. As he snaps crude photos of gossip mag fodder, Jeevan feels he’s debased both his art and his sense of self to survive, leaving him lost. The public hungrily consumes his celebrity photos, but leaves him deeply unsatisfied, much like Arthur Leander’s (one of Jeevan’s subjects) attitude toward his own films by the end of his life. It's thematically telling that when we first meet Jeevan and Arthur, Jeevan is watching Arthur play the title in a production of King Lear, a king who loses the most important elements of home - his family - and thus himself. In the novel’s opening, Jeevan has abandoned photography to become an EMT, something he perceives as noble and redeeming of his space in the world.
In all of this examination of the value and place of art in our lives, where does Mandel leave us? In a reversed zombie-invasion. Prior to the pandemic, an office worker, Dahlia, tells one of actor Arthur’s friends that:
“Adulthood’s full of ghosts…I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed…They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped…High functioning sleepwalkers.”
The film adaptation of the novel Warm Bodies did a poignant job illustrating this, as zombie R wonders what the world was like when people could really connect with each other, his voice a montage over images of pre-zombie humanity hunched over their cell phones in public spaces. In Station Eleven, Miranda says “It is sometimes necessary to break everything.” And break everything Mandel does, using the flu pandemic as a new Noah's flood to wipe the slate of our societal-reinforced lost-and-wandering-zombiedom clean.
It’s easy to perceive Mandel's characters as using the legacy of stories simply to fight their own mortality. Jeevan reads from a memoir, “First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” Mandel shows us there’s more to the story than a desire for immortality, though. What her characters desire is a sense of purpose, belonging, and place, and stories are the only framework for that place that can withstand any disaster thrown at them. As Arthur’s son tells him about the assassins from The Undersea in a Dr. Eleven comic:
“It’s an underwater place…They’re Dr. Eleven’s enemies, but they’re not really bad. They just want to go home.”
Year of Wonders is a departure from our other post-pandemic novels, in that the story focuses on an isolated plague epidemic that decimated an English village in 1665. To the story’s narrator, though, the whole world may as well have ended, as she and her fellow surviving villagers elect to quarantine themselves to prevent further spread of disease. Anna opens her narrative with a description of her home, a cottage left to her and her two sons following the death of her husband in a mining accident. After a childhood of abuse at the hands of her father, Anna’s cottage is her respite from the world. And with tragic consequences, her home is also the point of origin for the arrival of plague following the delivery of a bolt of cloth from London.
Anna grapples with loss as the people she’s grown-up surrounded by begin to die, lose their minds from the madness of isolation and fear, or both. Brooks raises questions about the salvation of one’s soul (is it something earned through selflessness, or a myth?), the coping mechanisms that surface as societal contracts fall away (mob action was a popular choice), and the importance of stories. Her primary symbol for the role of story in her novel is The Book itself: the bible. The bible is the only “story” that matters in rural Restoration England, but by the novel’s end, even the village minister comes to question the validity of using a single narrative as a lodestar.
“Dark and light, dark and light. That was how I had been taught to view the world,” Anna says, which is especially fitting for a woman raised in a mining village situated atop a network of caves and tunnels. As the novel progresses, Anna takes on the role of both a Hero’s Journey-figure and a Christ-figure. A healer and a shepherdess, Anna worries when she “had been negligent of the sheep, and some of them had moved off on their own, searching for the better grass I should have shepherded them to long since.” Anna’s “flock” is both literal sheep and the villagers, and the villagers a microcosm of the larger world where “God” utilizes nature to push people to face their fears, loss, and their true selves. Anna claims her own power after escaping death and emerging from a mining cave while trying to help an orphaned child. When her own children were still alive, Anna told us:
“It is the hardest thing in the world to inflict hurt on your own child, even if you believe you act for his salvation.”
In this statement, we see the strings of fate being pulled by Brooks, the God-figure to Anna’s savior-status. It is difficult to hurt those we care for, including our own characters, but it is necessary for their growth. In the end, Anna seeks the same comfort as both Mandel’s characters and the biblical Jesus figure: a true home within a new world order. In Anna’s new home, she is able to admit that the only story that really mattered was not the tale dictated to her from a single book, but her own story, the only story able to capture the essence of what home really is: a place to be free.
The Dog Stars also opens with a reminder of Noah’s flood in a reversal of the tale, recapping the exodus of the animals, rather than their salvation. Narrator Hig begins his story of survival in a post-pandemic Colorado saying:
“The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The titmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collard dove.”
The dove, symbol of peace, is the most telling of those that disappear from the new, empty world. Conjuring Genesis further, Hig tells us “In the beginning there was fear.”
One of few survivors of a flu pandemic, Hig takes up residence in an airplane hangar, a former hub of transience, rather than reside in a nearby house. To live in the house would be an empty staging of his old life, “recreating,”* as his companion Bangley calls it. Hig spends a good deal of the book thinking about his life pre-flu: remembering his pregnant wife, Melissa, and their trips into the Rockies for leisure rather than survival. The only detail left of that life, of home, is his dog, Jasper. Hig is deeply entrenched in questions of home, asking:
“Would I be more at home if I met a pilot from Grand Junction? If Denver to the south was a bustling living city? If Melissa were sleeping on the other side of Jasper as she used to do? Who would I be more at home with? Myself?”
When everything goes away, ourselves are the only thing we are guaranteed to be left with. Everything else: a full armory or a can of tuna fish, is up to the hand that pulls the proverbial strings. Hig comes to refer to the hangar as “Home. Meager as it is. Nothing to lose as I have. Nothing is something somehow.”
Hig doesn't have "nothing," though. What Heller gives Hig, besides a huge cache of weapons and a Cessna, is the ability and desire to tell his story:
“So I wonder what it is this need to tell. To animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty. Breathe life in the telling.”
Even as Hig refuses to “recreate” his past in action, he does so through narration and pattern, moving around the “paler ghosts” of his past. After Jasper passes away of old age, (not a spoiler, there’s no way to not see that coming – dogs always bite it), Hig continues to exist inside the framework of the life he’d built with Jasper. Hig “still put his pheasant hunting quilt on the seat for luck, I guess, still took the turns more gingerly, the dives less sudden so as not to throw him – how I had trained myself to fly now.” The patterns persist in absence, fashioning the narrative of the life we want from the hand we are dealt.
Of the three novels, The Dog Stars is the most redolent of hope for a new home built on the foundation of the lives we have led and lost. At the end of everything, Hig describes an apple orchard in Longmont left to grow untended:
“Acres and acres of apples…reverting to some kind of wildness…Sweeter than before. Whatever is left of whatever they distill is more concentrated in their complete and dangerous freedom.”
In the freedom of a wild world, Hig realizes that home was never a place that could be clung to or returned to, but is instead a place we are ever-creating and rein-visioning. He recites the haiku:
"I lift my head from the pillow
I see the frost from the moon.
Lowering my head I think of home.
Li Po’s most famous poem.
Even then: long before before the end, the bottomless yearning. Almost never home, any of us."
*My astute copyeditor pointed out that "recreating" could be read two ways, "re-creating" and "rec-reating," which lend different interpretations to Bangley's sentiments toward Hig's actions.