Sea of Tranquility
I am still in the afterglow of Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. Like her 2015 bestseller Station Eleven, it is a tour de force of innovation and technique.
St. John Mandel is a writer’s writer. Her protagonist, Gaspery-Jacques (named after the protagonist in one of her character’s novels) moves between five different time periods, some of them centuries apart. Her prose reflects the time period of the action: the stilted Edwardian English of pre-war English gentry, the capitalist jargon of a late-twentieth-century cocktail party, the imagined accent of an English speaker far in the future.
Some of her chapters are short, really just prose poems that reinforce themes from the broader story. These beautiful, literary amuse-bouche are sometimes as short as one sentence.
Her most recent work before Sea of Tranquility was The Glass Hotel, a precursor novel released last year, that landed more like John Updike than Arthur C. Clarke. Besides Station Eleven, all of St. John Mandel’s previous novels are shelved in the “general fiction” or “literary fiction” aisle. Although another foray into sci-fi makes sense, given the huge popularity of Station Eleven, reading The Glass Hotel led me to believe Station Eleven was a one-off, that she would not write science fiction again.
I was delighted to find that she was not only writing science fiction, she was incorporating a non-sci-fi book into the story. The cross-over reminded me of Brandon Sanderson’s cosmere, although St. John Mandel’s prose makes Sanderson’s look like the work of a ten-year-old, non-native-English-speaker.
The Glass Hotel is a precursor, and not a sequel, because Sea of Tranquility uses the events from the earlier work but does not extend them in the way a sequel would. Rather, by adding differing perspectives, Sea of Tranquility expands our understanding of events in The Glass Hotel.
This is where I feel some humble affinity with St. John Mandel. My novels in the Concerto for Rachel Trilogy—The Vials of Our Wrath, My Sun Sets to Rise Again, and By the Dead and Drowsy Fire-- strive for the same effect. All three books imagine a world where humanity need not deal with old age, where the fact and implications of death are pushed even deeper into the shadows than today. The story is lived through three prisms: youth (The Vials of Our Wrath), middle age (My Sun Sets to Rise Again), and old age (By the Dead and Drowsy Fire). Concerto for Rachel and Sea of Tranquility both enrich their stories through varying perspectives of the same events, perspectives that change over the lives of the main characters.
I am not brave enough to write a one-sentence paragraph or to trust in the music of my own words enough to write prose poetry. Luckily for us, St. John Mandel does have that courage and that gift, and she is kind and generous enough to share it in her latest book.
Sea of Tranquility is lovely, beautifully crafted, and deftly rendered. If you liked Station Eleven, you will love this book.