This chapter begins the second section of the book titled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It takes place twenty years after the outbreak of the Georgia Flu and the collapse of civilization it wrought. In July of Year Twenty, the Traveling Symphony walks and caravans near Lake Michigan while practicing lines for King Lear. Kirsten, now a member of the company, carries a paperback book version of the play and helps the other actors with their lines, including August, her close friend. The Symphony, which includes a troupe of actors and a group of musicians, is headed for the town St. Deborah by the Water.
For the first time in the novel, Mandel leaps twenty years into the future, creating a parallel with the beginning of the book by showing the post-collapse world through actors in a production of King Lear. Immediately upon seeing the world after the Flu, we realize that art and books have endured, even when much of civilization has not. Kirsten has grown up and graduated from playing a child version to the adult version of one of Lear’s daughters.
We learn that the Symphony has been traveling between settlements of the collapsed world since Year Five after the epidemic. A few months after setting out, the musicians met and merged with the actors, and the group has been traveling ever since. Their territory consists of the Great Lakes Regions in Michigan. They perform music of all varieties and Shakespeare. They tried to perform modern plays at one point, but they believe that audiences prefer Shakespeare, since they want “what was best about the world.”
The meeting and merging of two traveling post-collapse art groups is an example of the coincidences that border on fate in Mandel’s novel. While the Symphony performs all kinds of music, their actors exclusively perform Shakespeare. Part of what the novel explores is the question of what survives—particularly what art survives. It seems here that Shakespeare survives because he is considered the best that the world has to offer.
Many young people in the Symphony remember little to nothing about the world before the collapse. This is especially true of those so young that they were born after the collapse occurred, like Alexandra, the Symphony’s youngest actor who was discovered on the road as an infant. These young people ask the older people in the company to explain to them what the world was like.
The youngest in the Symphony rely on elders and communal memory for their understanding of what civilization was once like. For those who were young during the collapse, memories of the old world are fragile and always in doubt.
Kirsten reflects on August’s habit of staring longingly at televisions when they break into houses; he misses it more than she does, and collects TV Guides. Kirsten’s hobby is collecting gossip tabloids that mention Arthur Leander, the man she used to act alongside and who gave her the comic books that she now cherishes.
The now obsolete TVs are a constant reminder of what was one of the many technological artifacts that make for physical memories of civilization. The novel further explores what endures with the habit of collecting. Some of what survives is Shakespeare, but some books are just TV Guides or gossip tabloids. On one hand it is random, but it is also due to the conscious efforts of people like Kirsten and August to preserve what is important to them. Finally, we are introduced to the cherished comic books, a form of art which might be considered “lowbrow” in comparison to lofty Shakespeare.