Ways we can't entirely explain
A "not-so-book-review" book review of Emily St. John Mandel's Sea of Tranquility and Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob
In a bid to read more fiction, I recently finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility and in the hours after closing its pages picked up and began Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, muttering apologies to my book club members for starting it without them, and for starting another 1,000-page tome without first finishing Anna Karenina.
At first glance, Sea of Tranquility and The Books of Jacob are nothing alike, save for plots that span the sweep of several times, histories, and places.
Mandel’s book is slim, precise in its ability to use brevity as an engine for transcendent thought; the novel turns on stray sentences that function like the pulled linchpins of silent bombs. Here is the seemingly gratuitous description of a placid, time-traveling cat to underscore one protagonist’s colossal loneliness. Here glints the metal of the robots farming the fields of Colorado and Oklahoma in the sun, markers of technological progress, sure, but also of the undercurrent of human disquietude in the face of long hours without work. In the book, we only see couples retiring to these futuristic farms, as if only the most nuclear vestige of the nuclear family can face the long nothing hours of life in this robot-assisted pastoral. A line, one of my favorites, from the novel’s beginning amidst the backdrop of white frontier Canada: “Can a house be haunted by failure?” In this way, snapshots of aging love, industrial progress, the white pastoral, frontier beginnings, and happy endings accrue to create palimpsests of meaning, few of them as hopeful as they, at first glance, seem. (“The place is unhappy in a way that Edwin can’t entirely explain.”)
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for any amount of time it probably comes as no surprise that I delight in books that center vague miasmas, silent screams.