In “sea of tranquility», the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel, an author named Olive Llewellyn goes on a book tour, where she is subjected to terrible questions. Reporters ask if she prefers sex with or without handcuffs. Attendees of the event ask why his narrative threads are inconsistent. Strangers she encounters on the road, in Ubers and posh receptions, wonder why she’s racking up Marriott points instead of caring for her daughter. Olive’s best-selling novel “Marienbad,” about a “scientifically implausible flu,” will soon be made into a movie. Hence the tour, which Mandel recounts in dry, cut fragments – the lingua franca of autofiction and a whirlwind clue to what it does.
No reviewer waded through the swamp of “sympathy” and left feeling better than when they arrived. But it’s worth noting that Olive, one of the three protagonists of “Sea of Tranquility,” is immediately likable: graceful, funny, and thoughtful about her work. She speaks in a tone of wonder about connecting with those her words have touched — sometimes quite literally, as when a fan exposes her left shoulder to reveal, tattooed in “curly writing,” a line of “Marienbad.” Still, Olive isn’t above some kind of sweet irony, the subtext of which is, more or less, “Can you believe this shit?” She’s more interesting for her hints of prickly impatience, and her gratitude can feel as dutifully cultivated as her outrage is carefully contained. On tour and beyond, she seems to struggle with the reality of her art in the world: what power it can have over people and what demands they might make of it in return.
Behind “Sea of Tranquility” – a book about the consequences of writing a juggernaut book – looms”station eleven”, Mandel’s own juggernaut book, from 2014. Adapted by HBO last year, it’s the story of a traveling Shakespeare troupe whose members replenish after a flu that wiped out the world. (The troupe’s tagline, “Survival Is Insufficient,” might double that of the novel.) The book sold over a million and a half copies and blurred the line between genre and literary fiction. , weaving a study of art – how it is used, inherited and remade over time – into a post-apocalyptic thriller. Wandering among texts, points of view and possible trajectories, “Station Eleven” announced Mandel’s obsession with contingency, with who we would be if we were not ourselves. Scenes of stragglers in the new order alternated with glimpses of a lost past: dinner parties and plane trips, the flash of a paparazzo’s camera. The book promised, or threatened, that near-total transformation can be surprisingly easy.
Mandel’s first home was in Merville, a rural community on the east coast of Vancouver Island. When she was born, in the spring of 1979, her father was still building the family home, and they all slept in a tent while he scrambled to make the structure habitable in the winter. Mandel remembers the gravel roads, the boundless forest, the pumping of water from the river when the well ran dry. When she was seven, her family moved to a suburb called Comox, then, when she was ten, to the isolated outpost of Denman Island: “the same size and shape as Manhattan, but probably much larger more deer than people,” she told me. .
Mandel was a shy child. She wrote stories and poems that she never showed anyone. She devoted hours to the piano, in particular to Chopin’s Nocturnes, with their “sullen and shattering chords”. But her plan has always been to dance professionally. Her parents homeschooled her until she was fifteen, and she eventually enrolled in the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Three years later, she graduates, impeccably trained and crushing debt. Mandel was twenty-one and alone, and without realizing it, she had crossed a line. The dance, which had taken hold of her absolutely, had just as definitively loosened its hold.
“I remember thinking to myself, like, what comes next?” Mandel told me. We were sitting at his kitchen table in Brooklyn, sipping black coffee. Clouds streaked the windows, and the brightest things in the room were an airy hibiscus-colored scarf around her neck and a collage of her daughter on the wall. “And I thought, Well, maybe I could take writing more seriously.”
Over the next four years, during stints in Toronto, Montreal and New York, Mandel wrote her first novel, “Last Night in Montreal” (2009), a meditative mystery about a woman fleeing her past. The next two books were also dark thrillers: the crime fiction had a “certain elegance,” Mandel said, and it was drawn to its flawed, hyper-capable protagonists. To support herself, she collects odd jobs. She dumped coffee in an internet cafe. She did administrative work for a Manhattan architecture firm with a “horrible” boss. (In one meeting, she said, her teasing brought a young staffer to tears.) But she loved crafting grant budgets for a cancer lab at Rockefeller University. The work seemed useful and the research – on the role of microRNAs in metastasis – was really compelling.
What Mandel didn’t like at the time was the reception his fiction was receiving. In 2002, she moved to New York with a man she started dating after reading a review of her novel. She was one of the first to enter the online book scene, where her witty and friendly voice won over her fans. But her novels do not take off as she hoped. (“A young woman who used to run away runs away again,” The Editor’s Weekly sneered, of her debut.) In 2011, she published an essay on The Millions that playfully engaged the question of whether bad reviews mattered. They do, she concluded, but “I think we have to ignore them anyway.”
His biggest concern was getting branded as a detective novelist. For her fourth book, Mandel decided she would tear up the genre script – no more detectives – and delve into her childhood experiences with dance and theater. Yet something else nagged at her. Twitter and Internet writing had reshaped his relationship to readers; too often online life was synonymous with trolls and abuse. “I wanted to write about our technology,” Mandel told me. “And I thought an interesting way to do that would be to write about his absence, like giving a eulogy.” This presented Mandel with a creative challenge. In order to get rid of social media and cell phones, she would have to end the world.
In “Sea of Tranquility”, Olive gives a series of lectures on post-apocalyptic literature. “What if it was always East the end of the world?” she says. Later, she reflects: “You wake up married, then your spouse dies during the day; you wake up in times of peace and at noon your country is at war. For Mandel, “Station Eleven” was the event that caused her life as she knew it to cease to exist. The book won the Arthur C. Clarke Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award; it has been translated in thirty-five languages; he propelled her on a dizzying journey of speech that crossed seven countries in fourteen months. Many of the encounters Mandel describes in “Sea of Tranquility” actually happened; they were also destabilizing “, extraordinary and ebullient than on the page. Like Miranda, a secretary quietly making sci-fi comics in “Station Eleven,” Mandel had grown accustomed to creating art on the fringes of a nine-to-five.” It’s really hard to quit your day job when you come from a working-class background,” she says. But, in the summer of 2015, she was married, expecting a daughter, embarking on her second UK tour and somehow still arranging flight routes for her boss at the cancer lab. As Mandel told me, she couldn’t afford do not quitting his day job.
Mandel has often spoken, with self-deprecating frankness, of how “Station Eleven” turned his life upside down. She has spoken less often of the pressure she felt while writing her next novel. The manuscript took five years to write, and she continued to revise the structure. She was seduced by the “formality and symmetry” of David Mitchell “cloud atlas”, a panoramic puzzle box from a novel, and tried to achieve something similar, with timelines going back and forth. Published in 2020, “The glass hotelfocuses on Vincent, a videographer caught up in an affair with Jonathan Alkaitis, the mastermind of a Ponzi scheme. The novel posits a sort of Mandel Cinematic Multiverse, in which familiar characters appear with altered lives, and events swirl on parallel paths. Leon Prevant, Miranda’s boss of “Station Eleven”, is an investor in the fraudulent company. Miranda, who died in “Station Eleven”, is a successful CEO (In the world of “The Glass Hotel”, the virus of “Station Eleven” is “quickly contained”.) And Alkaitis himself is a reminder: his crimes haunt”The Lola Quartet», one of Mandel’s noir novels. “The Glass Hotel” demonstrated how formal trickery could bring out Mandel’s favorite themes: chance and self-reinvention.
Mandel considers the book a more interesting work than “Station Eleven”. To me, the challenge she set herself – to analyze the mind of a figure resembling Bernie Madoff – seems to have introduced her to psychology in general. Where “Station Eleven” seemed dreamlike, a mood piece bounded by grief, “The Glass Hotel” is nimble, indeterminate, interested not just in humanity but in individual humans. The book showcases Mandel’s longstanding interest in creatives, but the audience, or the spectrum of it, plays a bigger role. She told me she recognized herself in Miranda, the obscure scribbler, and “The Glass Hotel” also features a visual artist: Olivia. Miranda’s catchphrase is “I regret nothing”, but Olivia, like Olive, is stricken with doubt. At one point, predicting a passage in which Olive worries about a reader’s criticism of “Marienbad,” Olivia spirals in response to an offhand comment about one of her paintings: “The bleeding chair was- itself a good idea? Has any of his artistic ideas ever been really good? »