“Still A Life”: Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility

mandelIf my book club hadn’t settled on Sea of Tranquility for our next read, I don’t think I would have read it, not because I haven’t liked the other novels I’ve read by Emily St. John Mandel, because I’ve liked them just fine (Station Eleven more than The Glass Hotel, though), but because the premise didn’t really pique my interest and I’m having enough trouble sticking with books without deliberately choosing ones that don’t sound like my kind of thing. And yet I enjoyed it quite a lot—much more than Free Love, which I had expected would be exactly my kind of thing, and much more than Free Food For Millionaires, which I abandoned after about 50 pages.

Mandel is very good at scene setting, and one nice thing about Sea of Tranquility is that, because it takes place in several different times and places, she gets to show off that skill. Books that shift our attention around like this can be jarring, but she’s also good at pacing, so for me anyway, the journey from 1912 to 2401, and the stops in between, and then the returns, felt pleasantly seamless, like a literary version of the airships she imagines whooshing people around in the future. By the end, however, I thought the story she told was kind of thin: though I was consistently interested in the people and scenarios she set up, I felt much as I did at the end of The Glass Hotel—that, to borrow Henry James’s (extremely incorrect!) verdict on Middlemarch, the novel is a treasure house of details but an indifferent whole.

Mare_TranquillitatisThere’s real cleverness to the novel’s time-travel plot (though I don’t think these can ever be completely convincing), and a poignancy to the human story threaded through it, and the ongoing theme of pandemics created both menace in the moment and resonance for our moment. Maybe all of these things, done as well as they are, should be enough, but I am always looking, when I read a novel, for a sense of growing excitement about meaning, and I don’t think Sea of Tranquility delivers on that front. The big idea at the heart of it is what it would mean if we discovered we were living, not in reality, but in a simulation. What difference would or should that make to us? Would our experiences be any less real? Gaspery, the novel’s protagonist (more or less), concludes that the “correct response” to the news that we’re living in a simulation would be “So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.” I suppose that’s true, but it also seems to oversimplify the potential philosophical issuesnot that I know anything about them myself, but I have lived in close proximity to a professional philosopher for long enough to be sure that the implications of the “simulation hypothesis” are more complex than Gaspery supposes or Sea of Tranquility explores.

mandel2The other key idea in Sea of Tranquility seems to be “if you have the chance to save someone’s life, you should do it, rules or consequences be damned.” This hardly seems like a big ideain fact, it seems trite, a point hardly worth making, a choice so obvious it hardly counts as heroism . . . except that for Gaspery, the rules are made by vast and powerful institutions and the consequences are literally historic. Does that make the “right” choice any less obvious? A different novelist, or a different kind of novel, would have made more of this, of how we weigh the kindness to others that defines our humanity against our own needs and vulnerabilities, and also against larger goals and values that might be incompatible with it and yet still, possibly, worth serving. “We should be kind,” the poem goes, “while there is still time,” but Mandel pits kindness against time (you’ll understand if you read the novel) and again, I think figuring out what to do might be more complicated than the novel suggests, if you let it be. Yet I liked the absolute clarity of Gaspery’s choice: for him, there’s no question at all.

In the variety of its imagined worlds, Sea of Tranquility reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, although it has been so long since I read Cloud Atlas that I can’t really be sure if that’s a fair comparison. Mandel doesn’t have Mitchell’s ambition: Sea of Tranquility is all in more or less the same style, for example, whereas Cloud Atlas (IIRC) is a virtuosic sampler of different kinds of fiction, some of which I remember not enjoying at all. Mandel’s novel is easily readable; it’s clever and a bit tricksy, but not so in love with its tricks that it lost me.

“The Message on the Window”: Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

glass hotel

A lonely man walks into a bar and sees an opportunity. An opportunity walks into a bar and meets a bartender. A lonely bartender looks up from her work and the message on the window makes her want to flee, because the bartender’s mother disappeared while canoeing and she’s told everyone all her life that it was an accident but there is absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true, and how could anyone who’s aware of this uncertainty … write a suggestion to commit suicide on a window with that water shimmering on the other side, but what’s driving the bartender to despair isn’t actually the graffiti, it’s the fact that when she leaves this place it will only be to go to another bar, and another after that, and another, and another, and anyway that’s the moment when the man, the opportunity, extends his hand.

I was completely gripped by The Glass Hotel and yet I find myself at a loss when it comes to writing about it, not because it was difficult or confusing but because something about it was (for me, anyway) elusive. It is well constructed, in that its different parts, interwoven effectively throughout, tie up in a satisfying way at the end; it is well crafted, by which I mean that it effectively conveys its people, its settings, and its moods in sentences and sections that always kept my attention and sometimes were eloquent, beautiful, or memorable. None of this is meant as faint praise: plenty of novels do not manage nearly so much!

Since I finished reading The Glass Hotel this morning, I’ve been puzzling over why, for all that, it still seemed to be missing something. The best explanation I can give is that by the end of it, I wasn’t 100% sure why all of its specific ingredients belonged together in this particular novel: I couldn’t quite discern the underlying thematic unity, the meaning of it all. It’s possible that there isn’t meant to be one: perhaps the novel’s unity lies in its emotions, for instance, which did seem to be painted with a common palette of uncertainty, loneliness, and fear, with just the occasional highlight of hope or tenderness.

The biggest story the novel tells, a story which exerts a kind of gravitational pull on its other somewhat disparate people and elements, is that of Jonathan Alkaitis, a charismatic money man whose Ponzi scheme ultimately affects nearly everyone we meet. (He is modeled on Bernie Madoff.) But his financial fraud didn’t seem like a metaphor for anything else and there are no echoes of it in other people’s actions or values: it just is what it is, and has the consequences it inevitably does when it is uncovered. We meet investors and enablers, clients and partners, spouses and friends–the most interesting of whom is the painter Olivia Collins, who has invested all of her modest funds with Jonathan because once upon a time she knew and painted his brother Lucas, who has since died of a drug overdose. She loses everything, as do so many other people; the personal connection makes her betrayal seem particularly unforgivable.

glass hotel2But–why have a painter in this role? Is there something specifically meaningful about her portrait of Lucas? Are we meant to discern a contrast between what she makes (art) and what Jonathan makes, or pretends to make (money)? Is there a further connection along these lines to Paul, brother of Jonathan’s “trophy wife” (she isn’t quite that) Vincent, who is also an artist? Is Paul’s “theft” of Vincent’s archive of videos (repurposing, he prefers to consider it) meant as some kind of analogy to Jonathan’s abuse of his investors’ trust? How does the hotel of the title fit in, besides as a memorable setting? Is it symbolic? (People who live in glass hotels shouldn’t … what?) Is there meant to be a parallel between Vincent’s final moments, as she drowns (this is where the novel begins, so it’s not a spoiler) in the ocean, and the reclusive peace the hotel’s caretaker finally finds? Is the recurrence of drug addiction significant? Why are there so many ghosts? Is the message on the window somehow at the heart of it all? I have a lot of questions!

On the other hand, maybe none of them matter. I read The Glass Hotel almost entirely in a single sitting: it was the most engrossed I have felt in a book in a long time (in that respect, it was right up there with the last 100 pages of The Mirror and the Light). The novel worked for me as a reader, even if, when I sat back to think more about it, it hasn’t proved quite so satisfactory for me as a critic. My very favorite books are ones that make this distinction irrelevant. For me, analysis is not antithetical to pleasure but a pleasure in itself: that’s why I fight so hard against pejorative ‘takes’ on English professors that accuse us of taking all the fun out of reading – they assume such a narrow notion of ‘fun’! I get most excited when a book does all the things I look for–when it gives me all the kinds of fun. If I were on the hook for a ‘proper’ review of The Glass Hotel, my next step would be to reread it with all my questions in mind. Going through that process would either lead me to some ideas about where those ‘missing’ unities could be found (and Mandel is a smart enough author that she may well be doing things I didn’t grasp on a first read)–or to a firmer judgment about how much their absence matters. Absent that obligation, I’ll just stop here.

Between Two Worlds: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

cover-station-elevenI surprised myself when I picked Station Eleven to read next — and in fact there’s a pretty close possible world in which I don’t read it because it has two big knocks against it: it’s post-apocalyptic fiction, which is not a genre I’m usually drawn to, and it’s a recent book by a hip young writer and has been getting a lot of hype, which tends to make me suspicious. “Time will tell,” says my inner curmudgeon; “read the book if people are still talking about it after the initial buzz dies down.”

Two things overcame these prejudices. One of them was remembering my experience reading (and then teaching) The Road. Clearly my initial recoil against the genre can be overcome — and if once, why not twice? And the other is that I happened to catch some of Shelagh Rogers’s interview with Emily St. John Mandel on CBC’s “The Next Chapter” and between them they made the book sound pretty interesting. Also, I am still not getting along very well with The World Before Us (which on the face if it is just the kind of book I usually do enjoy!) so when Station Eleven turned up as Kobo’s ‘deal of the day,’ the timing was perfect.

Station Eleven actually (inevitably, I guess) has a lot in common with The Road. Everybody in it is on the road, basically, or was, after what is commonly referred to as “the collapse,” until settling somewhere. There are abandoned cars, ransacked stores, and empty houses that are like ghostly remnants of the lost world. There are “feral” gangs and violent desperadoes. But everybody’s moving in a much less hostile landscape in Station Eleven, because the catastrophe was a flu virus that wiped out most of the world’s population but left the natural habitat unharmed (if mostly untended). There are forests and butterflies, cows and chickens, sunsets and clean lakes and rivers for washing and drinking. It’s a kinder, gentler dystopia! As a result there’s a hopeful strain running through the novel alongside the grief, terror, and nostalgia: civilization has collapsed, but there’s a chance it can be built up again, and the creativity and cooperation among at least some of the survivors is proof of that promise.

It’s still a pretty grim novel. How could it not be, with a death rate in the general population of something like 90%? The premise itself is plenty terrifying, more so in a way than McCarthy’s rather vague flash-and-bang disaster simply because its horror is more intimate and familiar: there have been flu pandemics before, and in today’s incessantly mobile world a truly deadly one could hardly be contained. Mandel effectively conjures up the disbelief, confusion, horror, and then gradual adaptation that follows the pandemic, as the assumption that eventually help (the Red Cross, the military) will show up — as it always has before — yields to the realization that this time it won’t, that everything has changed, that the old world really has given way to a new one. Her story includes people who remember both worlds, because they were adults when the collapse occurred; people who recall only fragments that they struggle to reconcile with their new lives; and then the new generation, those who have never used electricity or the internet or a phone or antibiotics, who know airplanes only as places to camp and cars only as obstacles. Which is better, her characters often wonder: to have known that other world, with all its wonders, and to have lost it? or to take the new stunted life for granted?

Like The RoadStation Eleven provokes fundamental questions about meaning, value, and identity. If you have lost everyone who once knew you, and can no longer do the work that once defined you, who are you? If you survive, what will you need to know, and what will you want to do? The novel’s main characters belong to The Symphony, a group of traveling actors and musicians who perform Beethoven and Shakespeare; their motto (taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) is “Because Survival Is Insufficient,” which struck me at first as too pat but which ends up illuminating the range of things people do in this new, devastated world, not just to fill their time but to motivate and define themselves: starting a newspaper, creating a museum, putting on plays. Both the instinct to create and the desire to preserve take on fresh urgency in this context of loss and erasure: an awareness that other things were possible supports the belief that the terrible present too is not forever: “if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?”

Station Eleven turned out to be, then, a really engrossing read. And yet I actually found the general situation  of the novel — its big questions — more interesting than its specific plot, which by the end I found too contrived, too full of coincidences and connections that seemed unnecessarily clever, as if Mandel distrusted the simple humanity of her people to support the novel. She shouldn’t have: they are well drawn, and I wanted to know their stories and their fates. If the plot occasionally turned melodramatic, I suppose that comes with the post-apocalyptic territory (though did we really need a messianic cult, or a final confrontation at gunpoint?). There were some moments in the prose that struck me as lazy: phrases like “survived against unspeakable odds,” for instance. I also thought that, since everyone knows the novel’s premise going in, we could have done without heavy-handed proleptic announcements of impending doom, or painstaking enumerations of what’s lost (“No more cities. No more films … No more pharmaceuticals. . . No more countries … No more fire departments, no more police…”).

Or maybe I’m wrong about that last complaint, as both the vastness and the fragility of everything we could lose is truly hard to comprehend. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Station Eleven is that it celebrates, rather than excoriates, the way we live now, with its “taken-for-granted miracles that had persisted all around.” Ironically, it may be only in imagining “the end of the world as we know it” that we can understand how astonishing, even magical, that world really is.