Text Colliding with Text: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

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Fizzing at the center of Emily St. John Mandel’s slight new novel, Sea of Tranquility, is a bizarre phenomenon experienced by seemingly unconnected people living hundreds of years apart. Those who pass through it feel themselves transported in a disorienting blip of sounds and darkness, and find themselves ruffled and dizzy; it’s an experience they’re able to shrug off, but never forget. For a committee of advanced physicists in the year 2401, it may provide distressing evidence that all of life, from the dawn of time to the present, is a simulation. Through a sequence of coincidences, the committee lands on a hotel detective to serve as their time-traveling shamus to collect empirical data on this possible rip in the fabric of reality. Leaping from one interrogation to the next, across time and into a surprisingly perky vision of the future, Mandel opens her own tear in the nature of time, fate, and interconnectivity in her most philosophically daring novel to date.

The novel opens in 1912, with Edwin St. John St. Andrew, one of a team of aristocrats who have traveled from England to participate in the project of colonizing Canada. Edwin, like the other “remittance men” he meets as he dawdles across the country, doesn’t seem entirely sure of what to do, and so he spends a lot of time looking out windows and musing about the falling out with his family that occasioned his banishment. (At a dinner party back home, Edwin had the temerity to question the legitimacy of his family’s chief business concern, that of civilizing the globe.) He makes his way to British Columbia, thinking he may take up farming, but, when confronted with the vastness of mucky Prince Albert, he’s aghast to realize he never considered the occupation more seriously than “Taking care of horses . . . Doing a bit of gardening. Digging up fields. But then what? What do you actually do with the fields, once you’ve dug them up. What are you digging for?”

Edwin soon finds himself on Vancouver Island, drifting up the far end of the country, to the fictional town of Caiette, the setting for much of Mandel’s previous novel The Glass Hotel. One morning, on a stumbling stroll through the woods, he meets the town’s substitute minister, who claims to have arrived just that day, a man with an unplaceable accent and dressed in ill-fitting clothes. There’s something off about him. Shortly after they part ways, Edwin approaches a maple tree and is thrust into a rush of darkness “like sudden blindness or an eclipse. He has an impression of being in some vast interior, something like a train station or a cathedral, and there are notes of violin music, there are other people around him, and then an incomprehensible sound.”

He goes to the nearby church to recuperate and discovers the minister from earlier, who’s a little too keen in his inquiry about this troubling experience. Put off, Edwin leaves. He spots the proper minister coming down the lane. Turning to question his interlocutor, Edwin sees the imposter has disappeared out the back door.

What Edwin experienced is, of course, the phenomenon. His interrogator is Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, the motel detective from five hundred years hence.

It’s only at around the halfway point of the novel that we learn that this curious character, with his funny dialect and awkward clothes, is the novel’s protagonist. In a winning series of switchbacks, we see (in narrative time, not sequential time) Gaspery’s growth from a stumbling, harried interviewer to a more compassionately engaged one. Like Edwin, Gaspery is an aimless, reflective character. He’s a floater. After his mother dies, he applies to a new job at a motel where the HR representative explains that his employment was based on his capacity for “attentiveness.” Even as the representative applauds this quality in him, Gaspery’s attention slips away into self-reflection:

…it seemed to me that I’d been paying close attention my entire life. I hadn’t been successful at very many things, but I’d always been good at watching. That was how I knew my ex-wife had fallen in love with someone else, just by being attentive.  There were no obvious clues, just a subtle shift in—but the HR person was talking again, so I reeled myself in from the past.

Although amusingly un-self-aware, Gaspery illuminates one of Mandel’s chief interests in time travel. Not only is it the vehicle that drives the plot and much of the larger philosophical explorations into coincidence and the nature of reality, but in miniature, she tests how we’re all time travelers, revisiting, reliving, and revising our pasts through the unwieldy contraption of memory.

This reflexive impulse is perhaps most apparent when Gaspery, masquerading as a literary journalist, visits the novelist Olive Llewellyn in the year 2203 in the midst of a book tour just as a new, highly transmissible virus spreads across the globe. “I’ve never been interested in autofiction,” Olive tells Gaspery. And up until Sea of Tranquility, neither had Emily St. John Mandel. The parallels between Mandel and Olive are not coyly drawn. Olive’s novel, Marienbad, distinctly mirrors Station Eleven: the end of the world after a devastating flu epidemic, with some familiar characters crossing over from one to the other. Olive’s book has just been made into a film, which has exploded her book’s sales. (Station Eleven was a hit limited series on HBO earlier this year and has been the cause for rounds of reprints of Mandel’s novel.) Olive recognizes Gaspery as a fictional character as well: He has the same name as one of her characters in Marienbad, a name she thought she’d made up for a character in her book. Perhaps it’s this recognition that leads Gaspery to break the central rule of the time-traveling syndicate he works for: He warns Olive that the virus is not as well-contained as it appears. Gaspery knows Olive’s fate, which is to die in the upcoming pandemic. Olive then has a choice to heed his warning, this man with an implausible name, or to continue on with her coherent life.

As we follow Olive on her tour from airport to airport, lectern to lectern, and observe her many chance encounters with people whose lives vaguely intersect with hers, as we listen to her talk on the phone with her husband or watch a stray melody a limo driver sang in an unexpectedly lovely voice follow her across oceans and continents, as we watch her dissociate in a series of identical hotel rooms, we understand that our experience reading Sea of Tranquility is similar to Olive’s narrative. We’ve encountered five major characters in their different eras, and even until the very last few pages, we are unsure how they intersect, or if those intersections matter.

Mandel burrows even deeper into the plaster of the fourth wall by bringing in characters from The Glass Hotel. This was a deeply treasured book of the pandemic for many readers (myself included). So much of Sea of Tranquility handles the human toll of a pandemic (we see Olive in her era’s pandemic and characters in the early months of 2020), as well as the very real and very banal mindwarp it engineers, which suggested something of a return to the conditions in which I read TheGlass Hotel. When these characters returned, I felt transported not so much to their universe but to my own insular, doomy world in which I’d first encountered them. Mandel has also arranged for little treats for her loyal readers, Easter eggs that further her grander designs. One such moment occurs when Mirella, a winning secondary character from The Glass Hotel, refers to that novel’s antagonist, Jonathan Alkaitis, a Bernie Madoff-like character who ripped off his investors for billions of dollars. Mirella laments that Alkaitis was never punished for his crimes and at present lives in some far-off paradise with all his stolen fortune. Loyal readers recall that Alkaitis was in fact caught and imprisoned and spent his remaining years haunted by the ghosts of those he scammed.

Such moments aren’t merely delightful crossover nerdery; Mandel is indicating a larger fracturing. We doubt ourselves, trying to recall if our memory of the book is accurate. And if we see that we are, is it merely an error of Mandel’s? Something an overworked editor missed? Or is it deliberate? That doubt—or is it coincidence, or is it genius—has a strangely destabilizing effect. And that moment of awareness, drawing my attention to text colliding with text, my reading commenting upon my reading, made me wonder just what is—and what isn’t—a simulation.

Other reviewers have written that this is Emily St. John Mandel’s best novel yet. That’s not my reading, but it is her most searching work. Science fiction is an apt genre for her ambitious philosophical explorations, and Mandel delights in the freedom to world-build in a way her more literary novels disallowed. We see moon colonies sealed under domes that replicate the Earth-sky for generations of people who have never seen the sky on Earth. We marvel at technological advances, and we see our distant inheritors scratching their heads at our own present day technological crudity. Sea of Tranquility is in good company with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Charles Yu’s How to Life Safely in a Science Fiction Universe, with more than a few echoes of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.

But if her novel excels in its use of science fiction tropes, it also suffers from a few of the genre’s deficiencies. Some of the characters are underdeveloped plot devices, used mainly to further develop the already richly imagined landscape. My primary disappointment was the lack of definition in Gaspery’s sister, Zoey, who’s sanded down to all smooth surfaces. She doesn’t get angry at Gaspery’s inconsiderate dreaminess, she’s a workaholic without time for a life, and the subject of her work happens to also be the subject of the novel. Gaspery himself at times behaves in a way that can be attributable to conventional morality, rather than a conscience shaped by his own unique experiences and identity. In fact, when asked about a decision he makes late in the novel that puts his life in jeopardy, he states merely that he couldn’t have chosen otherwise. Although we understand the world that’s been meticulously and inventively constructed around him, the world orbiting inside Gaspery is less well-defined.

But perhaps that’s part of Mandel’s objective. Much of the novel questions what constitutes a life: If it’s reduced or subverted or is itself a simulation, is it still worth living? A lot of us struggled with questions like that during the lockdown of 2020, as we lapsed into boredom and shiftlessness and quiet. Perhaps we’re still considering them. While Mandel’s novel may not provide us with many answers, the profound, surprising manner by which she asks them is itself life-affirming.

Josh English's work has appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, and a few other places. His short story "The Human Animal" won the 2021 Ember Chasm Review Fiction Prize and his short story collection was a finalist for the Iron Horse Prize. He has an MFA from the University of Alabama and lives in Louisville, Kentucky where he is a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @PsychobillyBook. More from this author →