Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a post-apocalyptic ode to human invention with meticulous pacing and a number of strong central characters. Mandel finds fascination in things we in modern society take for granted: a computer screen glowing in a dark room; the satisfying sensation of warm running water; bright lights shining in the distance, beckoning us towards a city which we know is safe and filled with food.

The narrative shifts between characters during the initial outbreak of the hyper-deadly virus and a group of actors and musicians who, after the fall of modern civilization, wander through towns performing Shakespeare. We’re shown why “survival is not enough” and the importance of art in difficult times.

It’s easy to get engrossed: the pacing is absolutely rock-solid, so I tore through the whole thing in one sitting. I started out liking very few of the people whose perspective we take as they’re all so deeply flawed, but finished (for the most part) understanding why they act the way they do. The shifting perspectives give us different views on the same events and cast things we thought we understood in a new light. Mendal has a good eye for the way emotion and tragedy can turn people inward, and how small events can seem monumentally important to the person they’re happening to.

There’s an interesting perspective on the way humans impact the environment, eschewing the more common portrayal of humans as a purely destructive force on the landscape, and the atmosphere is thick with melancholy. Mendal always returns to the beauty humans can create together, whether it’s through architecture, electricity, or stage performances, and this makes watching the world falling apart sorrowful rather than merely frightening.

The biggest problem is that the ending action sequences with the troupe of artists aren’t as tense as they’re supposed to be. By this point I’d already watched the end of the world, and Kristen felt like a composite-human created to show the traumatic effects of a post-apocalypse who isn’t characterized distinctly enough to carry the future sections by herself. Whether the ragtag symphony survived a dramatic stand-off just didn’t feel important, as I didn’t know or like any of these people anywhere close to the same degree as Miranda, Clark or Arthur from before humanity’s fall. As such, the climax lacked emotional investment.

Still, Station Eleven was intriguing and, despite its inconsistency, a lot of fun. The mood is sad but tender, and there’s some nice writing strewn throughout. I wish it was more even, but if someone was looking for a real page-turner with a nice sense of pathos it’s worth picking up.


Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

“But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse.”

Imagine William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury crossed with It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia and you have something close to Suttree. One main character is a brooding rebel who has rejected his family’s wealth and lives on a river catching fish, spending his time drinking heavily and living painfully. Another fucks watermelons.

This is an outrageous and astounding novel. Seemingly aimless, true, but if you stick with it you’ll love how it can both amuse and devastate you.

A good way to approach this is as if it’s the adult equivalent of Huckleberry Finn, a series of loosely connected short stories that make up a greater whole. You follow a vagrant named Suttree as he travels through the underbelly of filth-encrusted Knoxville, Tennessee. There is no obvious plot, merely life in all its banality and wonder in a harsh place where angry, drunken homeless men maraud the streets and life can “always get worse.”

The writing is great, but McCarthy has most stunning prose of anyone alive so that can be taken for granted with him at this point.

I tend to keep a few simple notes while I’m reading a novel so I can keep track of moments or themes that strike me as particularly important or interesting. Despite the fact that, as mentioned above, Suttree is essentially plot-less, I had almost three times as much written when finishing than I normally do. Part of that is probably length, as this is a hefty book, but this also speaks to just how rich in detail and subtext it is. You could re-read each page and find a fascinating detail you missed the first time round. With a great mixture of the profound and the hilariously crude, this was a fitting and satisfying book for me to finish my reading of McCarthy on.

Still, it didn’t fully hook me until quite late in the story. I needed to get used to the strange, drifting narrative. Let Suttree wash over you like cold water: adjust, be patient. You’ll be rewarded. There’s something great lurking beneath the murky surface.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

A man has been arrested and he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know who is trying him, or under what authority they operate. He doesn’t even know what crime he supposedly committed. When he proclaims his innocence and appeals to his accusers’ common humanity, he is reprimanded as “that is how the guilty speak.”

Welcome to The Trial by Franz Kafka, where the world is a series of confusing systems which are almost impossible to navigate through without losing your mind or being crushed by the futility of it all. There’s something humorous about the absurdity here though, as farcical characters scramble around and appear to have no idea what they’re doing (which is normally making someone else’s life worse through sheer incompetence); this is comedy in its blackest shade.

The line between despair and ridiculousness to the point of hilarity is a tightrope that Kafka never quite lets you climb down from. There’s an overwhelming sense of tension, but I would struggle to point to exactly where it comes from. I normally take at least a few breaks while reading even a book as short as The Trial, but I finished it quickly as I wanted the sense of impending doom to bloody end already! In a good way. Sort of. I’m glad I read it, anyway. It’s not often a novel can distil desperation into its purest form, after all. It was like a good thriller, but one where you’re propelled forward by a sense of incredulousness and disorientation. Very unusual, very effective.

A messy book by design, even if you you’re the kind of person who has a real thing for Camus and thus keep alternating between a look of frustration and laughing hard, don’t go in expecting a traditionally satisfying ending. If you let yourself get swept up, though, you’ll put it down and feel like the annoyances of everyday adult life make just the slightest bit more sense.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

“There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did.”

Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, delves into the minds of two petty thieves: the charming and ruthless Dick, and the sensitive and rash Perry. One night in western Kansas, they tied up four members of the Clutter family, then shot each of them from point blank range in the head. They didn’t take anything of significant value from the house. They didn’t even know the family. Why? Why did they do this?

If you are expecting an astounding hunt of the killers, this is not it. The investigation just doesn’t have enough to go on, so they follow leads to dead-ends over and over again. The best parts of In Cold Blood are when it becomes a character study, exploring what made two men, one of whom seemed to grow up in a caring family, commit first-degree murder with no apparant motive. These are confused, angry men, so if you have ever tried to summarise your motives for just about any difficult decision, you will go into this knowing that there can be no easy or even clear answers.

One of the interesting things about storytelling is that audiences voyeurs. Once we’ve begun watching, we have no choice in the matter: we are locked in, watching situations that in any other context would make us feel guilty for impinging on people’s privacy. That’s why this book is so uncomfortable to read, and also why it’s so thrilling: we simply shouldn’t be seeing any of this. The details from In Cold Blood (purportedly) happened. That complicates the reader-story dynamic considerably.

Truman Capote makes a claim of objectivety, and then examines situations which he has no way of assuring us actually happened, even explicitly dramatising his subject’s thought. We aren’t only thinking about ‘characters’ now, we’re thinking about the truth that a family was brutally murdered, and this tragedy has now been adapted for our entertainment, and some details here were surely added for dramatic effect.

This attempt at a different way of investigating and displaying the truth feels occasionally contrived. Yet it’s above all entertaining, and that’s a confusing compliment to give a book that is meant to be about objective cruelty.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

“Look… we’re getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. I can see through Eastern values just as you can see through our Western ones. […] Don’t you think it’s time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”

Spy novels have never gripped me. I don’t know why – maybe I grew up so surrounded by over-the-top versions of suave, sneaky secret agents that a “serious spy novel” almost felt like a contradiction in terms. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very serious spy novel set in the Cold War. Great Britain is soaking, battered and tired, and the men who are tasked with “protecting” it are just old enough to long for days when their country felt glorious. While occasionally dry enough that you could confuse the pages for sandpaper, this a satisfying, occasionally confusing read.

George Smiley, our protagonist, is a round, pasty, recently-fired fellow who wears ill-fitting suits and until recently was one of the most intelligent and formidable spies in British intelligence. MI5—sorry, “The Circus” (Carre, due to his own extensive history with intelligence services for the UK, was asked to change numerous details in the novel to avoid revealing too much real information) has been given evidence that one of his old chums is a Russian mole. He is tasked with finding the traitor.

Carre shines when it comes to dialogue, and seeing these fiercely intelligent men and women match wits is a treat. All the characters have detailed, interesting backstories. They feel relateable in their concerns and worries, and provide an interesting look into how real spies might think and operate. Just what would a life of betrayal do to your psyche? When you have tricked so many people, do you have it in your heart to truly hate the person who switches your world over and bamboozles you?

The amount of paperwork sifted through is impressive, as is that a book with so little action can feel so tense. Like with any good mystery story, you have the puzzle pieces from almost the beginning, but you can’t quite tell what the picture is until it’s finally all put together.