On this thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, we found ourselves less separated than we might have hoped from the dark times that enveloped the country for the few years following. In fact, though the immediate cost to life and morale was more overwhelming in the months following the attacks, the path toward the light seemed to be more or less illustrated in terms of retaliation and redemption.
Heading into the autumn, the United States seems to be at the crux of so many separate humanitarian crises that a general malaise of helplessness looks to spread far and wide. Between ISIS, Ebola, the impossibility of reason surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict, the events of Ferguson, and a host of other domestic and international crises, sometimes it's easier to surrender to cynicism than to discriminate among a multitude of profound calamities.
Emily St. John Mandel's new novel, Station Eleven, might seem like an easy pigeonhole in the category of Young Adult Apocalyptic literature. But Mandel's novel is nothing of the sort, weaving together multiple narratives across a thirty-year span, and striving to justify the ultimate necessity of beauty even among a landscape of hopelessness.
Superficially, Mandel's premise is more or less cookie cutter: A band of people try to figure out how to survive after a fast-moving flu wipes out most of the populace. But her angle is that of the ritual of entertainment - her story begins with the death of a famous actor in the middle of a performance of "King Lear" on the eve of the outbreak. Fifteen years later, a rogue Shakespeare troupe presses on with performance in a barren world, determined to elevate beauty and oral tradition to its distinct place alongside simple endurance. A meaningful tattoo says it all: "Because survival is insufficient."
Just as the greater part of American households draped flags over their front porches after September 11, so do Mandel's characters come to embody this same turn toward genuine sentiment in the face of a world turned upside-down. The character of Jeevan Chaudhary is practically a walking metaphor: formerly a paparazzo, he's now an EMT in the post-outbreak world - a brash turn from parasite to nurturer.
Mandel's novel is a demonstration of a very real phenomenon, that of the dependency upon deflection in times of crisis. While the post-9/11 public had to be reassured that it wasn't in poor taste to laugh (best exemplified by Rudy Giuliani's "Our Hearts are broken, but they are beating, and they are beating stronger than ever" monologue on "Saturday Night Live"), they consumed in excess when they did. Sitcom ratings skyrocketed following the events of 9/11. The American box office also witnessed unprecedented numbers for opening weekends as moviegoers attempted to block out the first strikes in Afghanistan, Anthrax, and the open wound of the attacks. While it may have been a risky venture to release "Zoolander" two weeks after the attack, the movie doubled its budget in domestic profits on its way to solidifying its status as one of the most iconic comedies of the last decade. The first "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films followed, marking a massive rebirth of the fantasy genre in cinema. The film tones in question are less than surprising - high fantasy and screwball comedy each land far from a familiar reality.
The phenomenon of flag-drapery ties in well with both the sentiment of Mandel's novel and the quest for mass media consumption following tragedy: Each is concerned with finding and identifying with an idealized self - the person who maintains dignity among the wreckage, the person who is authentic despite their frequent criticism, the person who embarks upon a journey that will most certainly be completed in time. In short, the ritual of storytelling: both internal and external. Stock narratives help us discover order in chaos; they allow us to maintain control when control is lost.
It's an unfortunate blunder of history that the numbers for the box office following the attacks on Pearl Harbor are less than reliable, judged on the basis of deviation from the norm rather than gross receipts. But we could speculate that the reason for the spectacular success of Casablanca the following year, which attracted contemporary criticism for its liberal use of cliché, was the efforts of its filmmakers to turn the dial back toward ordinary (and the public's acquiescence). It's also unfortunate that we can't count the ticket stubs from the Theatre (one of the predecessors to Shakespeare's Globe) to see if the reason that Romeo and Juliet proved so popular was the rebound from the London Plague of 1593. It tends to be a good bet that great art will often arise from the ashes of profound tragedy.