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The Rewriting of Emily St. John Mandel

The Rewriting of Emily St. John Mandel

She became famous for a pandemic novel. But the crisis she’s interested in is change itself.

By Katy Waldman

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. Read the full piece at the New Yorker.

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