‘Sea of Tranquility’ Dizzying and Beautiful

I’ve heard raves about Station Eleven for years, as well as, more recently, The Glass Hotel. But my first attempt into Station Eleven didn’t get me far so I just assumed Emily St. John Mandel wasn’t a writer for me.

I’m not sure how to quantify how wrong I was. Because within pages of Mandel’s latest, Sea of Tranquility, I was completely entranced by the world she was slowly and brilliantly building.

In 1912, Edwin St. John St. Andrew is the youngest son of a titled nobleman who has been exiled, more or less, to the wilds of Canada. Even he admits the term “exile” is a bit dramatic, but it’s also not incorrect, after how badly he embarrassed the blue-blooded Brits he calls family with his anti-colonial rhetoric at a dinner party. As a youngest son, nothing much was expected of him, and he finds it hard to manufacture motivation in this new country whose sky is so big and clear. A series of slow failures and half-attempts lead him to a forest on Vancouver Island, which is where he experiences a jumbled flash of images and sounds—the start to what future time scientists will call “the anomaly.”

Over a century later, Mirella Kessler attends a concert. The composer is the brother of an old friend, Vincent, whose husband, Jonathan Alkaitis (all familiar names for readers of The Glass Hotel) defrauded investors. Vincent has since died mysteriously and Mirella has come to ask her brother, Paul, about her in search for closure. The subject of the concert, though, is a video Vincent took as a child growing up on Vancouver Island of a jumbled flash of images and sounds. Two hundred-some-odd years after that, Olive Llewelyn has traveled from her home on a lunar colony to tour North America and Europe for the rerelease of one of her books, which is being adapted for film. In her book, one of her characters experiences a jumbled flash of images and sounds, which she reveals off-the-record to one journalist is based on an experience she had herself in an airship terminal.

Looking back on all of them is Gaspar-Jacques Roberts, a hotel night watchman turned time agent, who travels from the 25th century back to the twentieth, twenty-first, and twenty-third centuries trying to identify the source of the anomaly. The anomaly isn’t hurting anyone, as it is—that isn’t the issue. The issue is that such an anomaly gives weight to the fringe theory that all of life and history is but a simulation, and that a convergence of time and place such as in the anomaly is but a glitch within it. If the public only knew, the truth wouldn’t cause mass panic so much as crushing ennui, and the time agents need to understand the anomaly and contain it if necessary. But there are rules to time travel, rules that Gaspar only assumes will be easy to follow.

The cover to Emily St. John Mandel's Sea of Tranquility, featuring a plain leading to a forest, and above the trees is a rising moon and the teal sky of twilight.

For the first few sections of Tranquility, we are introduced to disparate person after disparate person, with only faith in Mandel—and a few stray clues that I found myself gripping onto like a life preserver—to carry on to the next section. It’s not a bad story even then; Mandel’s writing is lovely and languid, and I would happily read a book that was a series of vignettes that strained the term “loosely connected.” As it is, though, I found myself clutching tightly to every connective thread and building my own explanation for the characters and information we’re given, even though Mandel is capably doing that herself on every page.

Tranquility is unquestionably a pandemic novel, in more than one sense of the word. Mirabelle’s attendance at the concert takes place in the very early days of 2020, back when the news was peppered with stories about a weird new virus detected in China and before many in the West thought those reports would have much bearing on our lives. There’s a strange sense of nostalgia for those naive days, but Mandel doesn’t show us how Mirabelle hunkers down and works from home and adopts a pet/sourdough starter/forest of houseplants to pass the time. No, the doldrums of lockdown are shown instead from the eyes of Olive, who hears rumblings about a new virus (which is later determined to be SARS 12) and worries about how much that virus will affect her tour, and her ability to get home when it’s over. Neither pandemic story within this larger story is told in such a way that I felt it was a rehashing of my pandemic life so much as connecting with someone over a shared experience.

Which is ultimately what all of the characters’ stories feel like: things that happened to, maybe not friends, but people you met at a party or a bar that one time. The oddity of the anomaly never leaves, tainting everything with sense of something subtle and unnerving, but staying in the background without complaint—until it comes out suddenly, disorientingly. As Gaspar gets deeper and deeper into the mystery, I found myself remembering Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, in the vaguest and best way possible. And miraculously, I never felt confused by time or place, even though writing about time travel is really hard.

Oh, were this desk a time desk. Oh, were this hoodie a time hoodie!

It’s a dizzying tour at times, but is always achingly beautiful and left me. I’ll be picking up more of Mandel’s work in the future, and this one will linger in my mind for a long time.

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