Fractured Chronology and the End of the World


Worlds do end, and that fascinates. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven opens with the end of an era–the end of two eras, really, one personal and one global. Arthur Leander, a noted actor playing King Lear on a Toronto stage, collapses and dies of a heart attack in the book’s opening pages. Soon after that, the paramedic who attempted to revive him learns of a strain of flu that’s quickly exceeded the pandemic level, and will soon end society as we know it. The bulk of the novel is set years later, and is (in part) about how society endeavors to preserve its best parts and builds on the structures left behind.

There’s an apocalypse in John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, too, but it’s a fictional one, the setting of a game called Trace Italian played through the mail that the protagonist created while recuperating from a horrific accident. Sean Phillips, the novel’s narrator, lives in relative isolation, his face disfigured from the aforementioned accident, his primary relationships with the correspondents who play the game he created, journeying through the perilous geography of a devastated United States a century in the future. And while the landscape that Phillips has envisioned exists only the intricately-constructed world of the game, it transpires that this is a world that many find compelling, some to the point of obsession.

Besides their invocation of a post-cataclysmic North America, both Station Eleven and Wolf in White Van both make interesting uses of time. Mandel’s novel begins close to the present day, then moves forward in time to show what becomes of the world. The first chapter set in that timeframe begins, “Twenty years after the end of air travel,” and the novel constantly takes note of things that have and have not changed. There’s plenty of repurposing of existing structures–cars without engines, municipal buildings converted to lodgings–as well as a divide between those who remember the days of cars and electrical grids and those who only know them as legends handed down through the oral tradition. And Wolf in White Van is told largely in reverse chronological order, working its way back through unpleasant events that befell Sean as well as several players of Trace Italian.

That said, neither novel’s chronology is exactly as cut-and-dried as that description might make it sound. Wolf in White Van opens with a flashback to Sean immediately following his injury. Its first sentence is “My father used to carry me down the hall to my room after I came home from the hospital,” which is about as efficient as you can get as far as conveying the timeframes in which this novel occurs, and the horrific event at the root of much of it. At the center of Station Eleven is the Traveling Symphony, a musical and dramatic ensemble visiting assorted settlements and marking the ability of those who live there to keep those small communities viable, but that’s hardly all that’s in the novel. Much of its power arises from the juxtaposition of those scenes with others describing Arthur Leander in life and tracing the lives of his loved ones before and after the pandemic’s rise. In the novel’s first half, the jumps in time can seem almost episodic: the individual scenes are moving, but how they relate seems less clear. Slowly, this comes into focus: the way that certain characters interact at specific times and the way that certain objects recur in past and present accumulates a massive significance. And both it and Wolf in White Van have titles that take on new resonances as the books progress.

In Wolf in White Van, the overall progression of the narrative is in reverse, but its method of storytelling isn’t a prose equivalent to something like Memento, or one of the two plotlines of Iain M. Banks’s novel Use of Weapons. Sean does periodically leap around in time, and while there is a central event that the novel is moving towards (or away from), there’s a general sense that his narrative point of view remains the same as the novel progresses–in other words, Sean is recounting all of these events from a fixed point in time, rather than losing certain knowledge with each step backwards.

Darnielle’s previous prose work, a novella inspired by Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, also took an unlikely chronological route; each of its two halves was narrated by the same man, but a decade apart. Think Krapp’s Last Tape with mental institutions and heavy metal standing in for the fears associated with aging. Here, too, the past and present worked out their own dance; here, too, youthful anger and a resignation that can come with age darted around one another. Mandel’s three previous novels have also made extensive use of flashbacks; her previous novel, The Lola Quartet, dealt overtly with characters wrestling with past events that were slowly revealed to the reader. But in the case of both of these novels, Mandel and Darnielle are writing with even more self-assuredness; the risks taken in how these books are structured exceed those found in their past work.

These are both novels about legacies: in Darnielle’s, that legacy is of trauma, and the creation and tragedy that can come of it. In Mandel’s, the legacy is an artistic one, and its bittersweet chronology demonstrates how the legacy of art can have unforeseen impacts on the world–both the dramatic work of Arthur Leander and other, more obscure, works of art. These are novels where the command of time is precise and absolute, and it sets the reader up for moments of breathtaking revelation, both transcendent and horrifying. That last element is key to both books: they balance moments of awe with scenes that can unsettle, and in doing so create dizzying narratives, immersive in more ways than one.

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