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thinking about Sea of Tranquility

I thought I’d type a few words in response to Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Sea of Tranquility (might be a missing “the” at the start there, I forget as I type this), which I recently finished. As I recall them, I associate her books with a sense of vastness and remoteness, usually physical locations - a ship out on the ocean, a sparsely populated island, dense forest - with characters drawn to those spaces and who when in more conventional spaces seem to experience their interpersonal lives in ways emotionally similar to the landscape - people at a distance from each other, or sometimes hemmed in and needing distance. I find it a lonely sensibility, or rather one that speaks to loneliness, of both the missing people variety and of the alone in a crowd variety.

Both those sensibilities have been a big part of my life, and increasingly so, during the covid pandemic, so if I were the main character it would be appropriate that pandemics feature in the new novel - pandemics, plural: one in the early 20th century; the covid pandemic, mentioned in passing; and a future pandemic. Mandel’s earlier Station Eleven is about the aftermath of a pandemic that basically ends society as we know it (I started to write ‘a pandemic that is a full-blown apocalypse’ but then I wasn’t sure how one distinguishes degrees of apocalypse, and some days the present feels pretty apocalyptic). It, like all of her novels, is very good, though that one might be her more famous. There was a funny twitter interaction early in the covid pandemic where someone said “read Station Eleven” and Mandel said ‘maybe wait a few months.’ I mention it because in Sea of Tranquility there’s a character who is an author who wrote a book about a pandemic. The book comes out and takes off, just as a new pandemic is breaking out and it comes up in interviews the fictional author does.

Elements of that part of the book read to me like a bit of a wink from the author (at one point Mandel’s author character is unsure how to answer a hotel desk clerk who asks if she has stayed in the hotel before, just as Mandel herself wrote in an essay about the Station Eleven book tour - https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2016/spring/feature/the-year-numbered-rooms - both that scene and the essay having the line “if you’ve stayed in one Marriott, haven’t you stayed in all of them?” There’s a scene as well where the author meets someone with a tattoo that a character in the book has, an experience Mandel had on the Station Eleven tour - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/apr/09/emily-st-john-mandel-readers-have-tattoos-from-station-eleven-it-blows-my-mind). It also made me think about how writing certain works might be hard on authors in certain circumstances (I may be projecting a little, and to be clear I’m nowhere near the writer Mandel is, as I’ve had an experience like this with my own book and the pandemic). Writing is work, as Mandel’s book tour essay makes clear, and work often leaves a mark on the person who does it. In a couple interviews I read while typing this up, like this one - https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a38441193/emily-st-john-mandel-interview-station-eleven-hbo/ - Mandel or the interviewer refer to the book as dabbling in auto-fiction. I don’t know that I know what that is, but in context it felt like confirmation of how the author character read to me. Mandel also talks about coming from a working class background then ending up a writer, I wonder if the sense of dislocation in her novels is related to that, and if that’s also part of what I like in the books, having a loosely similar experience.

Anyway, loneliness. In the pandemic I’ve been alone a lot, though alone with my family - I’ve been working from home a lot - more than literally alone, and as a household our family has isolated relatively aggressively. I’ve also been alone a lot in the sense of feeling detached from other people who are going along with the politically dominant consensus of moving on from the pandemic. This made the novel more resonant with my life circumstances - it speaks to the periodic bouts of both feeling stuck or cooped up and feeling an urge to get away from everyone (“Make a break for it, kids! Flee to the wilderness!” Utah Phillips once urged a group of young people, only half jokingly.)

These are part of the emotional palate of all of Mandel’s novels, all of which I’ve liked very much, so this doesn’t say anything particular about Sea of Tranquility, and Sea of Tranquility is, I think, particularly a pandemic novel. In an interview - https://themillions.com/2022/04/survival-is-insufficient-the-millions-interviews-emily-st-john-mandel.html - Mandel said that Sea of Tranquility was written during the pandemic, “against a backdrop of ambulance sirens, while wondering if I was going to see my family again.”

I want to highlight two things that make this novel more particular to the pandemic at least as I’ve experienced it. It’s not so much the presence of actual pandemic disease in the novel, which in some respects is more at the edges of the novel than central. That’s not quite right and frankly I’m not sure I can get it right, but trying again: pandemics shift from background to foreground while never fully taking over the novel, if that makes any sense. In any case, one of the two pandemic elements that I kept thinking about was the mismatch between two inexorabilities, that of the compulsory character of daily life - keep working, paying bills, getting groceries - and that of the steadily growing catastrophe. At one moment in the novel, one of Mandel’s characters reflects on this, about how ordinary life keeps going unaltered, then remade by the disaster. (And ultimately daily life and disaster aren’t so distinct. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “that things 'just go on' is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given.”)

The other element is a capacity by state officials to conduct themselves with indifference to the humanity of others, doing so in the name of security but, Mandel suggests, really done more for the good of the state or the specific state agency: “bureaucracy is an organism,” one character warns another at one point, “and the prime goal of every organism is self-protection.” Notably, that character is something of bureaucrat, and in the scene passes along the warning as a kind of hard won wisdom from years of life in the bureaucratic machinery, with, the implication goes, many more such years to come. That is, in the novel this is an insider’s view.

I don’t want to give away any plot details - the story is well plotted, I found it a compelling puzzle presented at just the right pace, at times leaving me confused in a way that built tension which was then relieved when the novel answered the questions it made me ask. As such giving away too much would make it less of an enjoyable read. So, without going into the details, the indifference I mentioned is a willingness to let people die and to in effect see other people as both real, concrete, singular people - as we all are - and simultaneously as nobodies to look through, who can be abandoned to their fate in the name of security. That abandonment and looking through people at least feels pretty widespread on the part of authorities in the present (I wrote a little about that here: https://blog.petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/2022/09/19/pandemic-nihilism-social-murder-and-the-banality-of-evil/) and I at least like the thought of that abandonment being distressing for some of the people who perpetrate it. Not that that’s enough.

On that note, a final thought. I like the humanism and the stoicism-then-joy sensibility of Mandel’s novels: serve higher purposes, specifically artistic ones, ones of intrinsic value, without expectation of reward, and above all in community, and that becomes its own reward. That seems simply a moral truth and one that’s satisfying. These days, who can’t use a sense that people can endure - and, eventually, after a long while, again come to thrive - after disaster? At the same time, retaining our humanity during, after, and despite catastrophe is not quite the same as imagining an end to all the violence and horror. Surely the two are linked, and the construction of a genuinely new society will include the construction of a new humanity, but I think it’s important that the novel not be read as fatalistic about social harms, with the high-mindedness a consolation.

I don’t think that resigned art-lover sensibility is what Mandel’s books convey (though to some extent I wonder if all art conveys that, all culture is barbarism in some respects; again I’m thinking of something that I think Walter Benjamin said). Then again, I like the books a lot such that I want them not to convey that, and I may not have critical distance. I do think that someone who had that sensibility already could perhaps come away from this novel and Station Eleven with that sensibility underlined. I like to think that the underlying disconnected loneliness so often present in Mandel’s novels might prevent that sensibility from taking hold too securely though: everyone ends up uneasy here, even in their relative happy endings (endings which, in the larger sweep of the novel get shown up to be fatal), and the novel also asserts via one of its characters that individuals, individuality and doomed gestures matter none the less for being so small.

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