Memory as an Agent of Comfort and Pain

In a world where the past holds the entire lost world, memory serves as an agent of both pain and of comfort. Kirsten believes that the more survivors remember of the past, the more difficult it is to adapt to the new world. She finds comfort in her own forgetting. The times she most equates with trauma, such as the first year after the collapse and the times she killed in order to survive, are the times she either forgets or refuses to speak about. In this way, Kirsten avoids the memories that cause her the most pain. However, nostalgia provides an immense comfort for characters throughout the novel and also allows them to make sense of and mourn the past and to dream of a different future. For example, Clark’s Museum of Civilization honors the big and small marvels of the world before the pandemic, and the memories held inside the physical objects that he curates create a sense of all that humanity achieved before its downfall. Similarly, Kirsten, despite her philosophy on memory, spends much of her time hunting for clues about her past and collects information especially about Arthur. This collection is part of how Kirsten understands herself and forges meaning within the brutality of her existence. Memories about the old world, such as the feeling of flipping a light switch or riding in an airplane, help to guide the characters’ hope for the future and for some day recreating some aspects of all that was lost.

Creation and Destruction in the Face of Tragedy

Throughout the novel, citizens of the new world turn to either creation or destruction to create meaning for themselves in the face of tragedy. These two strategies are best personified in the diverging philosophies of the prophet’s cult and the Traveling Symphony. Before becoming the prophet, Tyler is a lost boy in the Severn Airport searching for a way to cope with an incomprehensible new world. The only time he speaks at the airport is to tell Clark of his belief that the flu exposed a divine order to the world. This establishes a demarcation between good and bad. Later, as the prophet of this moral universe, he creates order and meaning by focusing on the perceived evil in others. He creates enemies that he and his followers may arm themselves against. Though couched in the language of religion, in practice, the cult spreads fear and destruction. 

By contrast, a fervent belief in the power of art unites the Traveling Symphony. Rather than focusing on mere survival, the symphony brings plays and music to audiences as an attempt to bring them solace and escape. Meanwhile, being in the symphony may be more dangerous than establishing a community that stays in one place like the cult does. This suggests that the symphony’s art is even more important than survival for its members. When they perform, they receive standing ovations and see people crying and laughing in the audience. This suggests their performances provides their audience with a reprieve from unmitigated daily fear and toil. Their work allows them to connect with the past, with each other, and with the citizens of the new world. They perform a true act of service, connection, and love.

The Blurred Line Between Art and Reality

Throughout the novel, the line between art and reality remains often blurred. This theme becomes immediately apparent in the opening scene. When Arthur begins to deteriorate onstage, the audience and even other actors on stage are uncertain whether or not he is still acting. This creates a sense of unreality that persists as Jeevan tries to resuscitate Arthur and feels watched by ghosts. This sense of unreality and haunting persists as Jeevan and others try to grapple with a tragedy whose magnitude outsizes their comprehension. This suggests that the blurring between art and reality helps the characters move through impossible situations. Another example of this blurring is in Miranda’s art and in the Dr. Eleven graphic novels. Miranda spends her life living half inside her graphic novels and half in the world, and she uses her art both to escape painful circumstances and to metabolize the pain into something beautiful and sustaining. This is reflected in Kirsten and the prophet’s love of the graphic novels. Through their eyes the graphic novels seem to leap off the page and reflect upon real life in the new world. Like the characters in Dr. Eleven, Kirsten and the prophet mourn the loss of an entire world. Their shared immersion in the graphic novels’ world allows Kirsten to, against all odds, survive her encounter with the prophet. This ultimately suggests that the obfuscation between reality and art sometimes allows for the seemingly impossible.

The Sacredness and Beauty of Everyday Life

Throughout the novel, the tremendous loss of the old world opens characters up to appreciate the sacredness and beauty in everyday life. As both Miranda and Arthur look back on their lives while nearing death, their thoughts don’t turn to monumental achievements or exceptional days. Instead, they turn to quiet moments of connection and beauty such as the sound of a pencil on a coloring book, the color of magnolias, or the taste of a particularly good croissant. Everyday beauties are also strung throughout Chapter Six, which is Mandel’s eulogy for the lost world. By juxtaposing the loss of big things like pharmaceuticals and aviation with the loss of small things like moths fluttering around porch lights, rust, and pictures of lunch on social media, Mandel underscores the significance of the everyday. Clark’s Museum of Civilization similarly elevates everyday things such as cell phones, stilettos, and stamps into objects as sacred as art or artifacts. In doing so, he teaches the young natives of the new world about the history of civilization and centers the everyday experiences that defined the lives they used to lead. By spotlighting the sacred beauty of the everyday, the characters also find some hope for a future in which the everyday will once again move beyond the fear and drudgery of merely surviving.