If we could return to the past, what would we change? If we could visit the future, what would we find? Such questions have always been irresistible for both readers and writers. The pandemic and global conflict make them even more tempting.
In this vein, three new novels take a maximalist approach to investigating the nature and fate of human beings. Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House and Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark all have a large cast of characters with interlinked narratives that move from past to present to future. The shadow of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas falls on this structure, as it does on other recent work such as Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise.
In Sea of Tranquility, Mandel, best known for Station Eleven, uses familiar time travel tropes to explore notions of authenticity and simulation. The novel starts in 1912, moves on to 2020, and travels a few centuries further, by which time human beings have found habitations other than Earth. Mandel yokes these periods and places together by an anomaly in time – a glitch in the matrix, as it’s been called in a different context.
All the characters are affected by this in some way. There’s Edwin St. John St. Andrew, a second son finding his feet in remote Canada. There’s Mirella Kessler (from Station Eleven), who will discover the truth about a strange childhood incident. There’s the self-referential Olive Llewellyn, an author who’s written a book about a pandemic and finds herself in the middle of another. And there’s Gaspery Jacques, whose meetings with these and others hold the key to the anomaly.
It's ingeniously constructed, with nesting dolls falling into place with a satisfying click. However, the apparatus of the book is less than original. Timeline management, for example, can put one in mind of TV shows like The Umbrella Academy. This also has an effect on the characters, who start out strong but are attenuated by the book’s mechanics.
Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House doesn’t venture as far from Earth as Sea of Tranquility, but does foray into the near future. The novel is a companion piece to A Visit from The Goon Squad and, like Mandel’s work, revisits some characters from that earlier novel.
It starts with Bix Bouton, a Black social media entrepreneur who has a vision of “an invisible web of connection forcing its way through the familiar world like cracks riddling a windshield”. Over the years, Bix’s digital creations touch the other characters in the book: an anthropologist whose work on tribal affinities was his original inspiration, a music publicist, a spy, their families, friends and more, all linked in intricate ways.
A lot of The Candy House is enjoyably implausible, especially the glowing cube that allows people to upload and search memories. This serves as a focal point for the novel’s exploration of how recollections and connections can create identities in an age of technology. As with Goon Squad, there are chapters in different registers, such as unrestrained interior monologues, e-mails, and predicting human actions via mathematics.
There’s a lot of candy stuffed into this book; much of it is gratifying, but consuming all of it is disorienting. The connections between characters can be befuddling, especially when there is more technical mastery than insight. As one of them feels, “knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing”.
The pandemic is mentioned almost in passing in The Candy House, and plays a role in the life of a character in Sea of Tranquility. However, with Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark, it’s a lethal contagion and its long-lasting effects that drive the entire work.
The book starts in Siberia, where scientists try to understand “what’s coming out of the ice as it melts”. The interlinked stories that follow progress from the present to the far future to show how the so-called Arctic plague devastates the world as we know it.
People respond and innovate in various ways. There are amusement parks where children spend their last hours, cryogenic suspension companies, mortuary cryptocurrencies, death hotels, and travel agents who promise a getaway with the recently departed. Scientists work to cure the ravages of the virus, and the tide slowly turns as the human race reaches “the precipice of a second chance”.
It’s admirable that in each story, unusual circumstances are not allowed to overshadow the characters’ distinctiveness. This gives the whole a flavour of resilience shot through with grief.
Not all the stories work as well, though; in particular, one reads about the antics of a talking pig with some bemusement. The ending ties things up with a high-wire foray into the origins of life on earth, with an unstable mix of emotion and extra-terrestrial escapades.
Here, as in the work by Mandel and Egan, human interactions and relationships are depicted as more or less the same, even after epochal shifts in technology and the environment. The impact of structural and material changes is barely touched upon, notwithstanding an on-the-nose conversation about colonialism in Sea of Tranquility.The aims of these novels are laudable, the execution skilful, but the results less than fulfilling. All of them have a surface appeal that isn’t always matched by depth. Gold for ambition, silver for implementation.