‘Sea of Tranquility’, Emily St. John Mandel’s achingly personal novel about the pandemic
Sea of Tranquility is what it is and ain’t what it ain’t. What it is is a small and perfectly formed pearl that smooths over and rounds off the sharp edges of the small grain of sand that stands for the author’s discomfort. What it ain’t is a novel of sweeping grandeur encompassing the whole global tragedy that comprises the Covid pandemic.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The world best knows Emily St. John Mandel for her 2014 novel Station Eleven, which told the story of a swine-flu pandemic. So, in 2020 when an actual pandemic hit the world , you would have thought that all she had to do was hunker down with her young family, tweet out “I told you so” a couple of times with a link to her Amazon page, and just wait for the book royalties to roll in. Or perhaps she would have to make a decision about whether she wanted to work on the multi-million dollar screen adaptation for HBO Max.
But the pandemic was never quite simple. We all experienced it in our own ways, frightened, isolated, threatened by infection. As individuals it was difficult to live through, and the whole phenomenon was almost impossible to comprehend, let alone deal with its ramifications, consequences and tragedies.
So, this is how Mandel deals with it. By writing a smooth, understated book about time travel that can contain the infection and the awfulness it causes, she can draw a line under her vague guilt for having brought the disaster upon us all – “saying the word pandemic might bend the pandemic toward us.”
Sea of Tranquility tells four or five stories from different episodes of history, strings them together and ties them up with a bow. One of Mandel’s main characters is Olive Llewellyn—an author with a young family who is on a book tour talking about her best-selling pandemic novel while an actual pandemic is invisibly but inexorably sweeping the globe—as well as the off-world colonies that exist in the future that she inhabits.
It is a fairly blatant autobiographical move, and not one that she tried to disguise, but it delivers a relatively minimal payoff. It gives her room to reflect that bureaucracies exist to save themselves; that being a mother in a young family is hard in the pandemic; and that having an insight into the future is less helpful and more troubling than we might imagine. These are real but not profound considerations, and give the impression that this is a novel Mandel wrote to process some stuff for herself and only later tied it up for public presentation.
Mandel is always understated. The evocation of the moon colony called Night City is beautiful. Her writing is pleasant. Sea of Tranquility is an easy afternoon’s read, just like her perfectly formed 2020 short novel The Glass Hotel. But she doesn’t go deep enough on the non-Llewellyn protagonists to make them compelling. So, though she pulls the plots together with admirable sleight-of-hand and great literary competence, this is definitely a nice-to-read not need-to-read novel.