In 2014 Emily Saint John Mandel published his fourth novel, Station Eleven. It became a kind of critical breakthrough and a commercial hit that changed the life of the writer. A story about survivors of a fictitious influenza pandemic, it took on new urgency in 2020 – the word “foresight” began to come up a lot – and the following year, HBO Max produced a lush, acclaimed limited series adaptation. A dark sequel to Mandel’s novel. Glass Hotelwas not as enticing in the zeitgeist as Station Eleven, but it was still warmly received as a bestseller. (Another HBO Max show is in the works.) With such recent success, any new Mandel work has high expectations. It would be understandable if she hoped that readers would put past triumphs out of their minds when evaluating her next proposal. However, instead Mandel demands the opposite: Sea of calm, her latest novel, is a discursive story that loops directly on its predecessors, cutting them up and rearranging the pieces into a trippy, wistful story. If Mandel were a musician, this would have been an album of samples of earlier songs. The past is not only a prologue, but also the present and the future.
Sea of calm begins with a supposed British colonizer named Edwin St. John St. Andrew as he arrives in Canada in 1912. He wants to redefine himself in a distant land, but it’s a seemingly pointless journey. He reaches the western edge of the country, but is frightened when he meets a stranger named Gaspari Roberts in the woods near a remote settlement in the north of Vancouver Island, and returns home.
As it turns out, Gaspari is a time traveler from the year 2401. He is investigating a cosmic anomaly — a tear in space and time, or “file corruption,” as his physicist sister Zoe explains — that could serve as evidence that the universe is a simulation. Trying to understand how this anomaly came about and what it might mean, Gaspari visits a number of people involved in it throughout time, including Edwin, as well as a socialite named Mirella Kessler in 2020. Mirella will be familiar to all who read. Glass Hotel. Mandel likes to cross-pollinate his stories with the same characters, and Mirella played a minor role in the earlier novel as the best friend of the protagonist Vincent. Vincent, who disappears and is presumed dead at the end Glass Hotelstill considered dead in the timeline Sea of calm, but after meeting Mirella, Gaspari travels back in time to see Vincent at different stages of her life. Vincent, who grew up near the same patch of forest in British Columbia that Edwin St. John St. Andrew briefly visited, captured the anomaly on film while walking through the woods with a video camera, so Gaspari wonders what she saw and why she saw it.
Gaspari also travels back in time to interview a moon-dwelling 2203 writer named Olive Llewellyn. He meets her at the end of a book marathon tour of Earth; having written a successful novel about a fictional influenza pandemic, she is now wildly popular. Olive’s life will feel familiar to Mandel fans as well. She is an emphatic, deliberate substitute for the author, so much so that she can also directly refer to her as “Emily St. John Mandel”. Even the details of their lives are the same, such as the number of books published before the big break. A wry remark about chickens that Olivia hears during her tour, as Mandel points out in the acknowledgments section, is paraphrased from what someone actually said to her at a literature conference.
Perhaps Mandel changed her name because she did something that almost no other writer of realistic autofiction does. questions. (To summarize, most of the protagonists of autofiction at least half a bag of dirt. An olive, maybe a 1 percent bag of dirt.)
She has an adorable life, and her biggest problem throughout most of the book is that she misses her husband and child but loves touring. Olivia’s interactions with Gaspari end up changing the fabric of reality, but they also work well for her. This is a smart move on Mandel’s part. Writing her stand-in as such an uncompromising lover practically makes readers look askance at Mandel’s intentions to tell the stories. Is she just trying to perpetuate a fictional version of herself as a good person? If yes, is there something wrong with it? Is this a stupid reason to tell a story? So what’s the point of telling stories if there’s really nothing real? What’s the point of doing something?
Speculative fiction often uses the future to decipher the present. Here, Mandel also mixes the past, creating a speculative universe where the ending of each storyline doubles as a loophole leading into the middle of another storyline. And this mix of old and new doesn’t stop at her whimsical timeline. Despite the fact that Sea of calm set largely in the future and adorned with sci-fi flourishes, it raises old questions about how we can make sense of it. “People wondered if their world was real while they were dreaming,” my colleague Jason Kehe recently said. wrote in an essay on modeling theory. Kehe argues that several recent books on modeling theory “argue not only that can it’s meaningful to live in a simulated world, but it’s necessary.”
I bet Mandel would agree. Towards the end of his story, Gaspari thinks: “If there is definitive evidence that we are living in a simulation, the correct answer to this news will be So what? A life lived in a simulation is still a life.” This line is the key to Mandel’s great theme. Artificiality is not the enemy of meaning. Tearing apart cherished stories, exploring their strange ends, rethinking their endings, questioning their assumptions of who they center, who they sideline – we can find meaning here too.
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