The Review: This is one that grabs you from the get-go. A production (fun incidental fact: it’s based on the 2007 Public Theater production directed by James Lapine & starring Kevin Kline, the poster of which hangs near my desk, completely by chance) of Lear and the actor keels over and a doctor, in the front row, leaps from the house and tries to save his life. High stakes, high drama – but none of that matters one whit once we’re introduced to what’s happening outside. The details are kept moderately sparse, perhaps making the Georgia Flu all the more frightening: it’s damned virulent, killing you within pretty much 3 days, and it seems to be transmittable via just about anything. Perhaps the scariest description of the flu comes late in the book, when one character at an airport sees a plane land and then taxi to the farthest spot away from the terminals – knowing that the plane has already been infected, they opt to perish inside the plane instead of expose more people. That’s some Stephen King/The Stand-type stuff right there.
But this isn’t a book about the flu. It isn’t even really a book about a post-apocalyptic world. Instead, I’d argue that it is a book about art and the necessity of art to live what we understand as a human life. As we toggle between time periods, there is one overriding connection: the art that is being made or understood in these time periods. Whether it’s Arthur (the actor) as an up-and-coming performer, his first wife and her graphic novel (which gives this novel its name and is a story in and of itself I would love to read some day), ______ in his role first as paparazzo then as journalist, or Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony in the post-flu world, we track art through all of these time periods. The Traveling Symphony, a brilliant invention on Ms. Mandel’s part, is just that: a traveling symphony of whatever instrumentalists they can cobble together but it is also a troupe of amateur (or not-so-amateur) Shakespeareans. On alternating nights, they present one thing or the other. Emblazoned across the front of their lead caravan is the phrase “survival is insufficient”, a quote lifted from Star Trek: Voyager (and kudos to Ms. Mandel for letting her nerd flag fly proudly – it’s a joy to see someone who loves Voyager as much as I did, for one thing). And it’s true. We see towns, settlements, places that are just barely managing to get by… and so the art that comes to them in the form of the Symphony is a respite. It is a time to put down their cares, worries, woes, etc, and to be transported for a time.
Isn’t that why we have art, period? What else are we doing when we pick up a book, look at a painting, see a show or a concert or a movie? We seek something more than ourselves, something more than our basic survival – and it is in art that we can find that transcendence.
But the novel isn’t all lovey-dovey power-of-art stuff. It spins out the connections between not just the four aforementioned characters but really several more across the web of the novel in a sort of David Mitchell-y, serendipitous way and while I won’t give all of the connections away (some are obvious, others are a little more rewarding), I will tell you that it took me aback at first to realize that the plot of this novel was really just about finding the connections between these people and following that story. There are other plots involved, of course – specifically in the post-apocalyptic setting, where a dangerous cultist (because, of course) has the Symphony in his crosshairs – but they are secondary. As such, there almost isn’t a ‘plot’, per se, to be found here. There are hints at the end of the novel that, should Ms. Mandel want to return to the setting, there’s a second novel here that would show us more of the brave new world that used to be North America – but I would say that the most propulsive parts of the novel are not the ones where there is action or where we see things come into focus. Rather, it is the little moments between characters. Arthur’s wife, out on the lawn at a truly horrendous dinner party, looking back inside. Arthur interacting with one of the young actresses just before his death. The elegiac reflections on the last time people did certain things, culminating in the museum at the airport. These are the reasons to read the book and I almost wish that some of the pieces of the plot had been brushed aside to let them really take center stage. They’re that wonderful.
Because I must return to the cult leader for a moment. I won’t spoil much about him – but I will say that everything about his involvement in the story, as a character and as a plot device, feels like the weakest section of the book. Or perhaps not weakest but certainly the most predictable, the most “oh, yes, it’s a post-apocalyptic novel and so of course we must have a creepy cult leader”. But there is so much focus on the rest of the characters and the rest of the stories that I never felt the actual danger. I never, even as bodies dropped, felt like he and his people were anything more than a construct. And while there is a version of this novel that exists where it’s all about the Symphony vs. the cult, and while I think that’d be a pulse-pounding thriller type novel, that’s not what I want it to be and nor is it the point. We have plenty of those novels in the world. We can always go read The Stand again. Instead, this is (as I said earlier) meant to be an ode to beautiful things and the hope that we can, after whatever comes humanity’s way, manage to hang onto them in the time to come. The rest is incidental.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The pleasant surprise of this novel is the experience of realizing that it’s not just a post-apocalyptic adventure. Instead, it is a clarion call, demanding readers to remember that “survival is insufficient” and we must continue to appreciate art as we can. For without it, we become less-than-human. The beauty of the book lies in the characters, in their interactions, and in the observations Mandel makes of our world now and how it might fade one day. It’s one of those times where you almost don’t even need a plot; you’re happy to just let the author set up her characters and tell us about them for a while. It’s that sort of quiet beauty.