The last few years have seen a number of heralded literary novels that criss-cross time and geography in artistically daring ways, taking us from prehistory through high-tech futures, making philosophical commentary all the while. I feel a little ambivalent about these books. I’ll find myself re-reading the rapturous praise on the cover, trying to coax myself to keep going. Is this really a work of genius, I’ll wonder, or is it a work designed to prove that the author is a genius?
When I turned to the table of contents in Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, “Sea of Tranquility” (Knopf, 272 pp., ★★★★ out of four), I started to worry. It begins in 1912, then travels to 2020 and 2203 and 2401 before snapping back to its earlier time periods. Then I started reading, and my fears slipped away.
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“Sea of Tranquility” is full of grandeur, but without even a whiff of grandiosity. It’s transporting and brilliant and generous, and I haven’t ever read anything quite like it.
We begin by following a young man across 1912 Canada after he’s been exiled by his family in England. In a forest near Vancouver, he encounters a strange man dressed as a priest, with an unplaceable accent. From there we jump to the year 2020 and the story of Mirella, whose husband killed himself after losing everything in a Ponzi scheme. Then we jump again, to a section called “Last Book Tour on Earth,” in which a celebrated author, Olive Llewellyn, makes a long series of publicity stops in 2203, answering the same questions over and over about her famous pandemic novel.
“‘I was confused by your book,’ a woman in Dallas said. ‘There were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t, ultimately.’” This is a playfully transparent sequence, doing little to hide its self-reference: Mandel’s 2014 pandemic novel, “Station Eleven” reached even higher fame this year with the release of an HBO series of the same name.
From there we jump forward in time again, meeting a man named Gaspery, who begins working with the “Time Institute” to investigate a glitch that has been occurring throughout history, in which images of a forest are interrupted by the sounds of a lullaby amid the hydraulic sounds of a spaceport – a glitch the reader has witnessed in each of the book’s previous sections, starting with our young man in 1912 Canada. As Gaspery travels back in time, he’ll have to choose whether to interfere to save the lives of the characters we readers have come to care about.
“Sea of Tranquility” uses its innovative narrative structure to generate new insights into how humans relate in the midst of disease and tragedy. This is a technique Mandel already practiced in “Station Eleven,” but this book doesn’t feel like a cynical retread. The storylines in “Sea of Tranquility” reference one another even as they call back to Mandel’s previous work, coming together to provide an abundance of moments in which individual characters believe that this, now, here, must be the worst moment in the history of the world.
Olive, the author figure, is dismissive of that idea. “‘It’s a kind of narcissism,’” she says. “‘We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history.’”
Time-travel paradoxes are often the plot of Hollywood action blockbusters, but rarely have they been used to craft a story with such tender and far-seeing wisdom. “‘Because we might reasonably think of the end of the world,’ Olive said, ‘as a continuous and never-ending process.’”