The Rewriting of Emily St. John Mandel

In “Sea of Tranquility,” the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel, an author named Olive Llewellyn goes on book tour, where she is subjected to terrible questions. Journalists lob inquiries about whether she prefers sex with or without handcuffs. Event attendees ask why her narrative strands don’t cohere. Strangers she meets on the road, in Ubers and fancy receptions, wonder why she’s racking up Marriott points instead of taking care of her daughter. Olive’s blockbuster novel, “Marienbad,” about a “scientifically implausible flu,” will soon be adapted into a film. Hence the tour, which Mandel narrates in dry, clipped fragments—the lingua franca of autofiction, and a flashing clue about what she’s up to.

No critic has waded into the “likability” marsh and left smelling better than when she arrived. But it’s worth noting that Olive, one of three protagonists in “Sea of Tranquility,” is immediately sympathetic: gracious, funny, and thoughtful about her work. She speaks in awed tones about connecting with those whom her words have touched—sometimes literally, as when a fan exposes her left shoulder to reveal, tattooed in “curly script,” a line from “Marienbad.” Yet Olive isn’t above a sort of gentle wryness, 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 indignation is carefully curbed. On tour and beyond it, she seems to be wrestling with the fact of her art in the world: what power it can hold over people, and what claims they might make on her 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 tale of a travelling Shakespeare troupe whose members are piecing themselves together after a world-annihilating flu. (The troupe’s tagline, “survival is insufficient,” could double as the novel’s.) The book sold more than one and a half million copies, and muddied the boundary between genre and literary fiction, sneaking a study of art—how it’s used, inherited, and remade over time—into a post-apocalyptic thriller. Wandering among texts, viewpoints, and possible trajectories, “Station Eleven” announced Mandel’s obsession with contingency, with who we might be if we weren’t ourselves. Scenes of stragglers in the new order alternated with glimpses of a lost past: dinner parties and air travel, 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’s house, and they all slept in a tent while he rushed to make the structure livable by winter. Mandel remembers gravel roads, boundless forest, pumping water from the river when the well ran dry. When she was seven, her family moved to a suburb called Comox and then, when she was ten, to the remote outpost of Denman Island: “the same size and shape as Manhattan, but probably way more deer than people,” she told me.

Mandel was a shy child. She wrote stories and poems that she didn’t show to anyone. She poured hours into the piano, especially Chopin’s Nocturnes, with their “brooding, crashing chords.” But her plan was always 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 graduated, impeccably trained and in staggering debt. Mandel was twenty-one and alone, and without realizing it she’d crossed a line. Dance, which had seized her absolutely, had just as decisively released its grip.

“I remember wondering, like, what comes next?” Mandel told me. We were sitting at her kitchen table in Brooklyn, sipping dark coffee. Clouds scrimmed the windows, and the brightest things in the room were an airy, hibiscus-colored scarf around her neck and a collage by her daughter on the wall. “And I thought, Well, maybe I could take the writing more seriously.”

Over the next four years, during stints in Toronto, Montreal, and New York City, Mandel pounded out her first novel, “Last Night in Montreal” (2009), a ruminative mystery about a woman fleeing her past. The next two books were also noir thrillers: crime fiction had a “certain elegance,” Mandel said, and she was drawn to its flawed, hyper-competent protagonists. To support herself, she collected day jobs. She slung coffee at a cybercafé. She did administrative work for a Manhattan architecture firm with a “horrendous” boss. (In one meeting, she said, her mockery reduced a young staffer to tears.) But she enjoyed crafting grant budgets for a cancer lab at Rockefeller University. The work felt useful, and the research–on the role of microRNA in metastasis–was genuinely compelling.

What Mandel didn’t love, at that point, was the reception her fiction was getting. In 2002, she’d settled in New York with a man she’d begun dating after reading a review of his novel. She was an early comer to the online book scene, where her witty, friendly voice won her fans. But her novels were not taking off as she’d hoped. (“A young woman with a habit of running away runs away yet again,” Publisher’s Weekly sneered, of her début.) In 2011, she published an essay on The Millions that engaged, from a place of playful pique, the question of whether bad reviews matter. They do, she concluded, but “I think we have to ignore them anyway.”

Her bigger concern was getting pigeonholed as a crime writer. For her fourth book, Mandel decided, she would rip up the genre script—no more detectives—and plumb her childhood experiences with dance and theatre. Yet something else was tugging at her. Twitter and Internet writing had redrawn her relationship to readers; too often, life online meant trolls, 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 its absence, like delivering 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.

“When you start a novel, it’s really open, but then you’re forced to make choices,” Mandel says. “And there’s an ever-narrowing path to the inevitable ending.”

In “Sea of Tranquility,” Olive gives a series of lectures on post-apocalyptic literature. “What if it always is the end of the world?” she says. Later, she reflects, “You wake up married, then your spouse dies over the course of the day; you wake in peacetime and by noon your country is at war.” For Mandel, “Station Eleven” was the event that made her life as she knew it cease to exist. The book earned the Arthur C. Clarke prize and was a National Book Award finalist; it was translated into thirty-five languages; it sped her on a vertiginous speaking route that crisscrossed seven countries in fourteen months. Many of the encounters that Mandel describes in “Sea of Tranquility” really happened; they were as destabilizing, extraordinary, and blood-boiling as they sound on the page. Like Miranda, a secretary quietly making sci-fi comics in “Station Eleven,” Mandel had grown accustomed to creating art in the margins of a nine-to-five. “It’s really hard to quit your day job when you’re from a working-class background,” she said. But, by the summer of 2015, she was married, expecting a daughter, embarking on her second U.K. tour, and, somehow, still arranging flight itineraries for her boss at the cancer lab. As Mandel told me, she could no longer afford not to quit her day job.

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Mandel has spoken frequently, with self-deprecating candor, about how “Station Eleven” upended her life. She has less often discussed the pressure she felt while drafting her next novel. The manuscript took five years to write, and she kept overhauling the structure. She was beguiled by the “formality and symmetry” of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” a panoramic puzzle-box of a novel, and tried to achieve something similar, with timelines flowing backward and forward. Published in 2020, “The Glass Hotel” centers on Vincent, a videographer swept into an affair with Jonathan Alkaitis, the mastermind of a Ponzi scheme. The novel posits a kind of Mandel Cinematic Multiverse, in which familiar figures appear with altered lives, and events go whirling down parallel paths. Leon Prevant, Miranda’s boss from “Station Eleven,” is an investor in the fraudulent company. Miranda, who died in “Station Eleven,” is a successful C.E.O. (In the world of “The Glass Hotel,” the virus from “Station Eleven” is “swiftly contained.”) And Alkaitis himself is a callback: his crimes haunt “The Lola Quartet,” one of Mandel’s noir novels. “The Glass Hotel” demonstrated how formal trickery could draw out Mandel’s favored themes: chance and self-reinvention.

Mandel considers the book to be a more interesting work than “Station Eleven.” To me, the challenge she set herself—parsing the mind of a Bernie Madoff-like figure—seems to have attuned her to psychology generally. Where “Station Eleven” felt dreamlike, a mood piece bounded by grief, “The Glass Hotel” is nimble, undetermined, interested not just in humanity but in individual humans. The book showcases Mandel’s long-standing interest in creatives, but audiences, or the spectre of them, play a larger role. She told me that she had recognized herself in Miranda, the obscurely scribbling cartoonist, and “The Glass Hotel” also features a visual artist: Olivia. Miranda’s catchphrase is “I regret nothing,” but Olivia, like Olive, is afflicted by self-doubt. At one point, predicting a passage in which Olive frets over a reader’s criticism of “Marienbad,” Olivia spirals in response to an offhand comment about one of her paintings: “Was the bleeding chair even a good idea? Were any of her artistic ideas ever actually any good?”

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