Review: Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Calm Sea

On the shelf

“Sea of ​​Tranquility”

By Emily St. John Mandel
Button: 272 pages, $25

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There’s a small moment in Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Sea of ​​Tranquility, that you might overlook: A man from his childhood recalls a moment when his mother looked down at a photograph of the “Ocean of Earth” as she was stirring soup. In four centuries, her family lives on Colony One, a man-made city with an artificial river but no seas or oceans.

This man, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, has his own private fixations. He could be mysteriously linked to someone who lived many years ago, or at least to their imagination. Novelist Olive Llewellyn included a character named Gaspery in her bestselling bestseller Marienbad, which was released on the 23rd Century.

In another segment, Llewellyn is haunted by the success of Marienbad, a dystopian novel she wrote on the brink of an actual pandemic. The parallel to Mandel herself, who is also the married mother of a small daughter, must be intentional. Mandel was practically hailed as a prophet — a label she disliked — after her pandemic-dystopian 2014 bestseller Station Eleven was adapted into a hit HBO Max miniseries just in time for COVID-19.

Llewellyn also plays the reluctant seer. One of the most touching sections of the novel unfolds when she realizes that her suspicions about a coming virus were correct; She abandons the rest of her book tour and heads home, crying along the way and stripping off her likely contaminated clothes on the sidewalk.

“Sea of ​​Tranquility” may be Mandel’s “pandemic novel” in the sense that she’s been writing it over the last two years, but it documents a different kind of human mishap. At the beginning of the story, a young Briton, Edwin St. Andrew, experiences a strange series of sensory events in a Canadian forest in 1912, where he meets a man named – yes – Gaspery Roberts.

Mandel knows how to brew a story. As Edwin, Gaspery and other humans scattered across time – a teenager named Vincent, an aging fiddler named Alan Sami – all experience similar visions, we embark on a juicy sci-fi journey of time travel, lunar colonies and landscape robots . But Mandel is less concerned with the mechanics of science fiction than with using its tropes to chart new paths through human relationships and their consequences.

At the very edge of the “Sea of ​​Tranquility” time frame, it’s the turn of the 25th century, Gaspery’s native “present.” He is looking for a new job and his sister Zoey works for the mysterious and powerful Time Institute. The concept of time travel is widely accepted, and its statute is reminiscent of the best-known science fiction (from Ray Bradbury to Back to the Future): Don’t tell anyone about your mission. Don’t get up. Do not interfere with a person’s life, even to save it.

The book leaps through time with impunity, following an inner map that will make exquisite sense in the end and only the end. His middle expands on Gaspery’s life, taking him from a listless twenty-something to a somewhat unconvincing new candidate at the Time Institute. We’re supposed to think Zoey is using her influence to get her brother the position, but it’s hard to see why he wants it so badly.

That’s a little quibble to make out of a novel that’s pure pleasure to read. “Sea of ​​Tranquility” is not “Station Eleven”. It’s not “The Glass Hotel” either. Mandelstans might already guess that the Vincent named here is Vincent Alkaitis from “Hotel”; He and Mirella Kessler have roles to play, although the connection between the novels is conceptual rather than narrative. That’s a good thing, because “Hotel” feels like a step backwards in hindsight, “Tranquility” like a giant leap.

After the initial trauma of lockdown, Mandel seems to have unleashed the sense of play and puzzle-play that glimmered in her earliest works (for example, the etymological fun in Last Night in Montreal). As you follow Gaspery on his journey through time, you may be reminded of the best passages in the work of Ben H. Winters or, even better, that of Ursula K. Le Guin.

But as in Station Eleven, Mandel is far more interested in human psychology than in world-building. Witness Gaspery’s ultimate downfall – where he ends up, what he does with his life. This brave new world is built on technology, but still leaves room for old traditions — violin lessons and, even less likely, long attention spans. The Time Institute has its plans for humanity, but it hasn’t (yet) figured out how to control each and every psyche. Humans can still find wormholes with their wormholes to further their own goals – which can be as simple as helping a loved one or as complex as trying to save the world. If art is what survives in Station Eleven, here it is free will.

Of course, Mandel is too smart and the rest of us too scarred by the past few years to believe any utopia. She retains her greatest disdain for the Time Institute bureaucrats. “You have to understand that bureaucracy is an organism,” Zoey tells Gaspery. “And the supreme goal of any organism is self-protection. The bureaucracy exists to protect itself.” Is that a Canadian thing? (Mandel grew up in Quebec.) US citizens don’t love bureaucrats, but they don’t generally blame them for the ills of the world.

Maybe we should. Mandel’s writing about bureaucracy is reminiscent of the officials in the film Brazil, the Gringotts gnomes in the Harry Potter series, and the government employees in the television series Counterpart. They are competitive, malicious and paranoid. One of the book’s final aha moments is when Gaspery realizes that someone at the Time Institute has been manipulating Llewellyn the whole time – a dark but also funny comment on the machinations of modern book publishing.

Which brings us back to Gaspery’s memory of the “Ocean of Earth”. For all their water features, the colonies cannot replace the wonder of nature – the dark green forests and the deep blue sea. More than one character has family “back on earth”; Llewellyn’s parents retired there.

Following a top stylist like Mandel is like watching a lace maker at work: you see the strands and later the beautiful result, but your eyes just can’t follow what’s in between. As in her best work, including Station Eleven, she’s less concerned with endings than with continuity. In “Sea of ​​Tranquility,” her vision isn’t quite as bleak, but it’s as strong — I won’t say prophetic — as always.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-04-04/review-emily-st-john-mandel-novel-sea-of-tranquility Review: Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Calm Sea

Caroline Bleakley

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