Apparently living in virtual quarantine throughout a long pandemic leads to thoughts of traveling through time rather than through space. Emily St. John Mandel in Sea of Tranquility presents us with anomalies which end up coming to us by way of the Time Institute of Moon Colony Two. Detectives are trained and then travel in time to try to explain events that seem to operate against the rules of time travel. The rules of time travel have come down to us from science fiction writers and scientists, from Star Trek and Isaac Asimov, et al. The main rule of time travel is to have as little effect on the past as possible because it is impossible to predict the consequences of changing past events beyond the tiniest of adjustments. Penalties for breaking the rules of the Time Institute are severe. You could be killed. You could be banished in time.
There is the anomaly experienced by Edwin St. John St. Andrew who questioned the concept of British imperialism at the dinner table in his London family home, who suggested that meddling implied a responsibility to “civilize savages”. Edwin is banished to America where he experiences a strange vision under a giant American oak tree on an island off Vancouver.
There is Olive Llewellyn, a few centuries later, on a book tour on Earth. Olive lives in Moon Colony Two with her husband and her child. Her homesickness follows her to characterless hotel rooms all over Earth. There is a threat of a spreading disease, but Olive is determined to complete her tour and the disease seems always far from where she is speaking and meeting readers. Her book is called Marienbad and is, ironically, about a pandemic.
There is the mysterious Gaspery-Jacque Roberts who keeps popping up in different eras. Is he from an entire family that names each boy in generation after generation with this unusual family name, or is there another explanation for his ubiquity?
If you could save an innocent, restore a loved one to their family, but had to break the rules of time travel to do so, would you? The fear of what might be lost to history and what might be gained would be difficult to overcome. Would you accept your punishment, or would you rebel?
There are evocative images in this novel and resonant questions about scientific speculations that may never become realities. Will time travel ever be possible? Can we use time travel to escape existential threats to humanity? Mandel brings a certain European sensibility to her books which seem sometimes shrouded in mists. Her mysteries are so mysterious that we can’t quite grasp what we learned and whether we want to know it. Even so she is marvelous at atmospheric fiction and in all her novels, even when travel in time is not the topic, her images and metaphors take us traveling in time.
The title of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is more symbolic than actual, although the book abounds with expensive houses and hotels full of glass walls, and images of light on glass, and reflections in glass, water like glass, and even two cryptic examples of acid writing on glass. Despite all the reflected sunlight, and the sunlit exteriors viewed through shaded interiors we get the feeling that this will be a dark tale. The sunlight simply covers over the crimes little and big that all human lives seems to collect. The glass suggests a transparency which does not exist. It is as if you tried to look through the glass from the outside, but the inside was so dim in the bright sunlight that all you could see was your reflection.
Paul is the first character we meet. Although he certainly wanders along underneath the main narrative, his is also an iconic modern story. Paul’s sister, Vincent, I know strange name for a girl, but that is her name, does not know her brother well and is warned by her mother that he has a difficult life and she should stay away from him. However, Paul is adrift and Vincent is his only anchor so he makes sure that his path sometimes crosses hers. Paul wants to be a musician but he is in college studying math. He is barely surviving and then things get even worse when he goes to a Goth bar to hear the group Baltica and buys a bad batch of Ecstasy. He hands it off to the band, not realizing that it is a messed up batch and Charlie Wu dies of a heart attack. Talk about a life-haunting event. And why did it have to happen to a guy from the back of beyond in Canada who already had a tenuous grasp on life skills. Paul becomes a heroin addict.
Vincent, who once engraved with an acid pen on her window the mysterious phrase ‘Sweep me Up,” does get swept up by billionaire John Alkaitis when she is working as a bartender at an exclusive hotel near her hometown of Caiette. Vincent also drifts along through life, although she is not very old. She has the habit of filming scenes from nature, especially of water for five minute segments of time but this does not seem to be leading her to any career or art form. It’s just something she does. Paul, actually Vincent’s half-brother, also is working at the hotel and he is accused of etching the sentence ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass’. It’s an odd echo of his sister’s behavior and we even think that Vincent may have done this. It’s a mystery that isn’t solved until much later so I will leave it there.
This is not really the story of Paul and Vincent although they begin the story and end it. The fact that Paul keeps stealing parts of Vincent’s life and slowly killing himself with drugs will have you wondering about the reason these two are even in this story. They are sort of two innocents destroyed by the evils of modern life. But John Alkaitis does not seem evil. He’s very good to Vincent and he has style and wealth. He’s a sympathetic figure as he lost his first wife to cancer. Vincent is too young for him but she doesn’t question him or try to control him in any way. She is just a pretty, cheerful and self-contained presence. But John Alkaitis is a financial wizard who seems to use magic to produce investment returns that are consistently high. How does he do it?
The book is well-written, full of evocative images. It begins with a flashforward to the end which you may not even process unless you go back and read the beginning again. The beginning did not draw me in but I stayed with it and became quite enamored of the book. It’s not easy to pluck a story out of the news and make it fresh, with a decided literary flair.