I was originally tempted to just post this whole novel as one giant (and perfect) quotation.
We knew it was coming but we behaved inconsistently. We stocked up on supplies-just in case-but sent our children to school, because how do you get any work done with the kids at home?
(We were still thinking in terms of getting work done. The most shocking thing in retrospect was the degree to which all of us completely missed the point.)
One day, when we look back at everything created during the pandemic, this book will be the only record we need. I am in awe; wonderstruck and made dumb- it is too difficult to accurately describe my feelings around this perfect, PERFECT book. It was perfect for me, perfect for this time, and a perfect creation in general. I had my phone in hand through the entire read (it was a one-day-break-only-for-necessities read) not because I was bored or distracted, but because I was frantically taking photos of lines that I wanted to remember; lines to remember not just for this review but for my life in general. Review tip: if you take photos of books (or screenshots of ebooks) you can than use Google Lens to copy the text directly to your computer! Hooray!
Sometimes you don’t know you’re going to throw a grenade until you’ve already pulled the pin.
Emily St. John Mandel, most recently of The Glass Hotel (but most notably – until this point – of Station Eleven) has, once again, crafted a crystalized world of connection, fate, tragedy, and the overwhelming-but-often-hidden core of goodness within people. While not a sequel, Sea of Tranquility is a dip into the universe – multiverse ? – that has held seemingly all of Mandel’s creations. While I haven’t read everything of hers, I was able to pick out the obvious connections to her “biggest hits” as well as the sneakier thru lines that go all the way back to Last Night in Montreal.
The first time I read Station Eleven, back in the Halcyon Days of the Obama Era, I was struck immediately by this future world where, despite a serious tragedy, humans continued to hold onto their humanity. Food, shelter, clothing- none of it mattered without community, creation, and love. Reading it again for the 2020 CBR Book Club found us all in a strange place, disconnected by our own COVID pandemic but connected still by the need for community, creation, and love. Reading a book about revolving around a treacherous flu was comforting during the onslaught of our own treacherous flu!
What do you know, it’s 2022 and we are still deeply entrenched in this war. It’s not a war against the virus anymore, but a war against each other. It’s a war between those who care for their fellow humans and those who care only for themselves. Pangs of this hurt stabbed through The Glass Hotel: Ponzi schemes, murder, addiction- but there were still tiny glimpses of hope while Mandel spun a gossamer web between the present and the not-s0-distant past. Sea of Tranquility picks up threads from all over Mandel’s work and fashions them into a twinkling and rippling tapestry of time, time, and time.
I was reminded pleasantly of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life while jumping through time with Sea of Tranquility. WWI to right now, now to the colonization of Canada by Britain, Canada to the colonization of the Moon, the Moon to a book tour in Ohio in the not-so-distant future, the not-so-distant future to the not-so-distant past of the back of a cab in Brooklyn. Characters from past Mandel works bubble up throughout, as do references to past and potential future events. Most notably, Mandel herself breaks through the page in the image of Olive, a writer on tour – discussing a book about a figurative pandemic- while on the eve of a pandemic herself.
You write a book with a fictional tattoo and then the tattoo becomes real in the world and after that almost anything seems possible. She’d seen five of those tattoos, but that didn’t make it less extraordinary, seeing the way fiction can bleed into the world and leave a mark on someone’s skin.
Sally Rooney was busy with her last book playing “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, Mandel is livestreaming herself looking into a mirror, and I love her all the more for it. I don’t want the inevitable 5 year, 10 year, 50 year reflections that are surely headed our way. I don’t want any allegories, any tongue-in-cheek splatter fests, or any rose-tinted celebrations of when we pasted rainbows in our windows while refusing to do the simplest things to keep ourselves- and strangers- safe. I want this book and this book only as mandatory reading and as the definitive description of what we lost, how we threw it away, and what we may attempt to do again in the future.
Slightly related, but is anyone watching Station Eleven on HBO? I’m two episodes from the end, and it’s beautiful, but it’s so focused on suffering in a way that the novel definitively is not. While I am enjoying it as a piece of media entertainment, it’s hard to love when the love seems to have been stripped from the every day of the characters and used instead as a wound to poke with a stick. Thoughts?
Also – shout out to my beloved local heroes, Gibson’s Bookstore! Not only was my pre-order a signed first edition, but since it was ordered through an indie bookseller Emily St. John Mandel included bonus content. Hooray!