In 2014, Emily St. John Mandel published Station Eleven, her bestselling novel about a pandemic. Which meant that in 2020, she acquired a peculiar sort of status as one of the ones who saw it coming, somehow; what Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson called one of the plague prophets.
Station Eleven wasn’t really about its pandemic, though; that was just the plot engine that got Mandel to her artsy post-apocalyptic world of traveling Shakespeare companies, beautifully rendered in the recent HBO Max TV adaptation. Mandel’s latest book, Sea of Tranquility, is a true pandemic novel. It exists to try to grapple with the world the Covid-19 pandemic made and what the pandemic taught us about reality. The results are lovely, life-affirming, and occasionally but unmistakably clumsy.
Sea of Tranquility also exists to play, metatextually, with what it was like to be Emily St. John Mandel in 2020. One of the central characters is Olive Llewellyn, an author in the 23rd century who lives on the moon and has found herself abruptly famous after her book about a fictional pandemic is a big hit. She’s on book tour — this section cheekily titled “The Last Book Tour on Earth” — when she finds herself caught up in another pandemic, this one real.
Abruptly, Olive’s universe narrows itself: long days indoors, trying to work while simultaneously educating her child from home, her book tour gone virtual. She finds herself delivering holographic lectures on the great uptick of interest in postapocalyptic literature over the past decade.
“So I’m guessing I’m not the first to ask you what it’s like to be the author of a pandemic novel during a pandemic,” one journalist remarks.
As Olive shuts herself indoors, Mandel spirals her narrative focus outward and across time. In 1912, we meet Edwin St. John St. Andrew, 18 years old and “double-sainted,” who finds himself exiled out of England and into Canada after sharing his lightly anti-colonialist views at his viscount father’s dinner table. Edwin will shortly find himself in the trenches of World War I, and shortly after that staring down a flu epidemic. In January 2020 we touch base with Mirella, the victim of a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. (Mirella appears in Mandel’s 2020 novel Glass Hotel, but you don’t need to have read Glass Hotel for Sea of Tranquility to work.) In all those timelines, we encounter the mysterious Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, and in 2401, we enter into his head to find out his side of the story.
Gaspery and the looming threat of disease and destruction bring Sea of Tranquility together. All of Mandel’s characters find themselves living through a version of the apocalypse, a moment in time that seems as though it might plausibly be the end of days. (Gaspery’s plotline, which revolves around the simulation hypothesis, involves a threat to the fabric of reality itself.) “We might reasonably think about the end of the world,” Olive says during one of her lectures, “as a continuous and never-ending process.”
The project of Sea of Tranquility is about finding meaning and beauty within a world that is constantly dying, about relishing a life that seems always on the cusp of awful and irrevocable change. In this it mirrors the appeal of Station Eleven, which imagined that even after the apocalypse, art and beauty and pleasure would matter. Here, Mandel’s prose is shot through with moments of unexpected lyricism that seem to mirror this project, that take you by surprise with their limpid sweetness.
Olive on her book tour walks through “the Sheep Meadow at twilight: silvery light, wet leaves on the grass.” During a spaceflight off of Earth, “the atmosphere turned thin and blue, the blue shaded into indigo, and then — it was like slipping through the skin of a bubble — there was black space.” Gaspery, who lives under the artificial atmosphere of a moon colony, walks home through the rain with pleasure. “I’ve always loved rain,” he says, “and knowing that it isn’t coming from clouds doesn’t make me love it less.”
The loveliness of Mandel’s sentences, though, stands in jarring contrast to the clumsiness of her plotting. The different sections of this novel are linked by a time travel mystery, and the mystery’s resolution, which forms the emotional fulcrum of this novel, is so pat and clichéd that if I were to describe even just the setup in this review, you would know immediately how it all worked out.
Still, it’s also true that Mandel really is extremely good at writing prose. And the larger project of Sea of Tranquility feels, in the long and fraught ebb of the pandemic, both nourishing and needed. The world is always ending, this book says, and there is always beauty to be found in it.