Reading Emily St. John Mandel: The Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility

Being active on book-focused social media and keeping my ear to the ground for best-of lists and book awards, it is impossible to miss the chatter about Emily St. John Mandel's books, particularly her most recent three: Station Eleven (2014), which I haven't read; The Glass Hotel (2020); and Sea of Tranquility (2022). This month, I hosted a "Tackle Your TBR" challenge (TBR=books To Be Read on one's list), and I had the Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility sitting on my shelf, having picked them up at local Little Free Libraries last year. Perfect! I dove in. 

The three books are loosely interrelated, Station Eleven the least so. There's some debate if The Glass Hotel should be read before Sea of Tranquility, but after having read them both, I would suggest absolutely reading them in sequence. Although Sea of Tranquility could be a standalone book, I got so much more out of it by reading The Glass Hotel first. That said, The Glass Hotel could certainly stand alone. 

The Glass Hotel 

This book is one that I had real trouble pinning down. On one hand, it’s a straightforward tale—as basic as a sci-fi adjacent multiple time period multiple-point-of-view novel can be—but on the other hand, I had so many thoughts while reading. Only they’re the kind of thoughts that are super hard to corral. They swirl around in my head and I can’t easily put them into a coherent narrative that would make an excellent literary critique. I think I could, but that just seems like too much work, frankly, and I want to simply bask in the enjoyment of the thing.

Why is it so good? It’s almost lyrical, but not quite. The story is immediately engaging. There are no wasted words here; everything matters and everything flows. There were characters I quite liked, and some I didn’t, but even they were written compassionately. Mandel takes a kind tone with most, without absolving them.

I think the kindness may come from some of those swirling, rambunctious thoughts that are up there in my brain.

Ponder this: How you can know something and not know something all at once. This runs serpentine-like through the book. Like knowing about corruption around you, or participating in it, but not knowing it to be true. Like knowing something is very wrong but not letting yourself know you’re choosing it. Like knowing something horrible has happened but also knowing that maybe it didn’t. In a literal sense, we can all relate, because this is an excellent defence against awfulness and hard choices.

The slight magical realism here is tantalizing. The road not taken, or the choice not made, gives birth to ghosts and possible alternate universes. Or perhaps they are not alternate universes; rather, simply the alternate realities that live in our brains and that keep us from going mad with the weight of personal responsibility. This goes by different names in The Glass Hotel: the shadowland, the ghost life, the counterlife.

There is also a sense temporal fluidity. Structurally, Mandel shows us this by skipping around in time, and sometimes effectively using short snippets of prose, like half-formed interrupted thoughts, over several pages. This felt like a literary photo album, flipping pages to see the pictures, dropping in here and there, sometimes lingering on an image, sometimes glancing only briefly.

I like the analogy of the photo album for this novel, because things arise and pass with the flip of a page or just the whim of fate. You can go backwards or forwards. People are alive, and they are dead. What does that even mean, when their image persists in our heads, or in a photo, or as a ghost? Each page represents a different episode in life. Those episodes come and go so quickly, sometimes with obvious foreshadowing (that we may ignore) or sometimes with no warning at all. Mandel shows us these temporary states, like the “kingdom of money” or “the country of the sick.” Honestly, she’s got a knack for apt labels.

The otherworldliness of this novel will linger with me for quite a while. It is spooky, haunting, beautiful and poignant, and ultimately hopeful.

Sea of Tranquility 

Next, I read Sea of Tranquility, and this affirms my sense that she’s a master writer. Her prose here is again spare, never wasteful. It’s not quite lyrical but has an otherworldliness that is a bit haunting. This is a small story–there is no massive world building, no in depth character development–but main character Gaspery does indeed have his tribulations and does some learning.

Mandel presents a simple idea and uses it to riff on the meaning of life: untethered from time, where do you find meaning? This story was at once expansive and narrow.

Expansive in that it takes the reader out of the restrictive notion of time that we all experience. Time travel exists in this future, though none of it is very scientifically explained; this is not hard sci-fi. There is a 500 year time span, and we follow the characters back and forth. The lens widens: life spans become minuscule. The Earth’s rhythms change, and everything changes. That is unsettling for our time traveller characters.

This expansiveness made me ponder some Buddihist concepts, particularly the Five Remembrances, from the Upajjhatthana Sutta, or Subjects for Contemplation. During my daily meditation, I repeat them to myself; they are quite humbling.

Loosely translated, they are:
  • I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape old age.
  • I am of the nature to grow ill. I cannot escape sickness.
  • I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death.
  • I will be separated from everything and everyone I hold dear.
  • My only true possession is my actions.
These Remembrances seem so negative, but learning to accept the truth of them is very humbling, and nudges me down the path to equanimity. Being untethered from time in the book’s narrative gave me a sense of these truths embodied in this little story. As you see people’s lives start and end along with Gaspery, and see how nothing really lasts, it's sad but also life affirming.

Accepting the nature of change: that all things arise and pass away, captured by the Five Remembrances, is freeing. In the book, Gaspery struggles with this, and must come full circle to a narrower lens.

This narrower focus emerged towards the end of the novel. In the expansiveness of time and change that Mandel shows us, the one thing that is true now is the present moment. That is all we have, and in a way that is liberating. There was a particular section of the book where author Olive (I suspect based on Mandel herself) is giving a lecture about the nature of “the end of the world” to an audience. It’s wonderful, and worth the whole book!

Olive, who has written a best-selling pandemic book in the 23rd century notes:
“‘I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It's a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world…

But all of this raises an interesting question,’ Olive said. ‘What if it always is the end of the world?...Because we might reasonably think of the end of the world…as a continuous and never-ending process.’”
It's too much of a burden to be in perpetual crisis, to always bear the weight of the end of the world over and over, through time. This is the difficult truth that Gaspery has to face. Instead, accepting the present moment for what it is, values it fully. The freedom to deal with only what is in front of you, and make skillful choices from that place without knowing what will come in the next moment, is a relief. That way, we only have to deal with one end of the world at a time.

The novel’s pacing was just right for me to have time to think–rather philosophically–while I read, full circle. To become untethered in time and see with a wide lens can be beautiful yet terribly overwhelming. Perhaps it's enough to be aware of the scale of interconnectedness and time, while focusing on the present moment and its beauty and worth.