Two Disappointing Big-Name April Releases

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (2011) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) and The Glass Hotel (2020) have been acclaimed for their shifting timelines, polyphonic narratives and kaleidoscopic cast of characters. Both writers have follow-up novels out this month, and I found both disappointing – although my enthusiasm for Egan was already dampened after my buddy re-read of A Visit From The Goon Squad with Rebecca whereas Mandel had yet to let me down.

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Sea of Tranquility was one of my most anticipated books of 2022. It’s loosely linked to both Station Eleven – one of my favourite books of the last ten years – and perhaps especially to The Glass Hotel, which I also loved. It features four major plot threads/timelines. Edwin travels aimlessly in Canada in 1912, trying to find a purpose for his life after being ‘exiled’ from England by his wealthy family. In 2020, Mirelle, a side character from The Glass Hotel, watches a strange forest video made by its protagonist Vincent in 1994. Novelist Olive is on a book tour in 2203 promoting her pandemic novel, Marienbad. Finally, Gaspery discovers the strange truth about his physicist sister’s job in 2401.

Sea of Tranquility is a short, quick read, but I don’t think I ever got what it was trying to do. As other reviewers have pointed out, the SF elements of this novel feel cliched and stale to anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the genre. Personally, I hate when writers postulate that time travellers can change the past and have to correct anomalies, because it’s by far the stupidest, most illogical and least interesting way to use time travel, especially when there are two perfectly good alternative models available (one, you time travel into a parallel universe; two, you accept you can’t change the past and whatever you did there has already happened). However, I also have no interest in the ‘we are all living in a simulation’ thought experiment, another trope that’s very familiar.

Parts of this book feel more like Easter eggs for fans of Mandel’s earlier work rather than narrative strands in their own right. The Mirelle section, in particular, would surely feel pointless to anyone who hadn’t read The Glass Hotel. Meanwhile, Mandel uses Olive as a mouthpiece to talk about her experiences writing Station Eleven, but again that would only really land if you’d read the earlier novel. Olive’s reflections on day to day living in a pandemic are mostly thinly-veiled comments on Covid-19 with added futuristic trappings (‘Dion’s job required a great many meetings, so he was in the holospace six hours a day and was dazed with exhaustion in the evenings’), which is very irritating.

Nevertheless, there are points in Sea of Tranquility where Mandel really hits it out of the park, and reminds me why I loved her writing in the first place. Some of her pandemic comments are incredibly insightful, much the best writing I’ve seen on the topic so far: ‘Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. They arrive in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorientating. The pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step’. And this novel is still perfectly readable and even enjoyable. It’s just a bit closer to trashy SF/bad literary takes on SF than the truly literary SF that Mandel is clearly capable of writing.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th April.

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After reading and admiring A Visit From The Goon Squad in 2011, I went on a bit of a Jennifer Egan binge, burning through Look At Me and The Keep as well. Funnily enough, though, I can remember very little about any of those books now. (The only Egan book I do remember clearly is the later, less popular Manhattan Beach). Due to this plus my failed Goon Squad re-read, I wouldn’t have requested an ARC of The Candy House had I realised it was a loose companion to Goon Squad. From that perspective, I’m not sure I can even call The Candy House disappointing; it’s just more of the same.

The Candy House claims to be about a new technology called Own Your Unconscious, which allows you access to all human memories uploaded into the ‘collective consciousness’ as long as you upload yours in return. In short: it’s not. You could remove Own Your Unconscious from the vast majority of this book and it would have no impact on the plot or themes. In itself, not a big deal, but it points to a wider problem with The Candy House; Egan just isn’t interested in how being able to access other people’s actual experiences would transform our understanding of humanity. Like one of my least favourite Black Mirror episodes, ‘The Entire History of You’, The Candy House focuses on using this technology to play out the same kind of stories rather than thinking big. Once again, a literary writer appropriates a SF trope that has been explored far more thoughtfully and adventurously elsewhere.

Even this would be less of a death knell for The Candy House if Egan used the sections of the novel, which are told through multiple perspectives, to prove her mission statement: that the novel is really the only thing that allows us access to the collective consciousness. However, as in Goon Squad, beyond the gimmicks, most of her narrators sound and think the same. Part of the reason I struggle to keep track of her large and disparate cast of people linked to the music and later the social media industry is that they aren’t clearly differentiated from each other. Imposing different structures on different sections (spy instructions; algorithms; D&D terminology) doesn’t mean you have actually developed distinct voices. There are a couple of sections that worked better for me – Molly’s teenage voice is fresh and different, while the long email exchange near the end of the novel is a lot of fun – but that was about it.

The candy house, in this novel, is either the social media algorithms that tempt users in, believing they can get stuff for free while they’re actually selling their own data, or a nostalgic ‘memory palace’ built by past generations to lure the young back towards a world they remember. Both are interesting themes (the latter rather more so than the former) but neither are adequately explored in The Candy House. Sadly, this just wasn’t for me, and I think my interest in Egan’s work has also come to an end.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th April.

15 thoughts on “Two Disappointing Big-Name April Releases

  1. It’s a pity that Sea of Tranquility wasn’t as good as you were expecting it to be. I loved Station Eleven and have been looking forward to this one, but your review makes me think that I should read The Glass Hotel first and, also, that The Glass Hotel might impress me more.
    Out of curiosity, are you planning to watch the Station Eleven adaptation/have you watched it? I haven’t had the chance to watch it yet, but I do want to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d say it makes a lot of sense to read The Glass Hotel before reading Sea of Tranquility. It’s much more closely linked to that novel than to Station Eleven.

      I’ve not seen the Station Eleven TV series – not sure where it’s available to watch in the UK? I’ve heard wildly mixed things about it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The blurb for The Glass Hotel has never really appealed to me, but I’ve heard such good things and I really want to read Sea of Tranquility, so I think I’m going to pick it up soon.

        I’m in South Africa and the only way I have found to watch Station Eleven is via Amazon Prime. I don’t have Prime but I might do a free trial to watch it. Not sure if it’s the same in the UK?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Like you, I loved Station Eleven and Glass Hotel (which I thought to be just as good) and was eagerly awaiting Sea of Tranquility (I’m currently saving my copy for a long road trip home). Obviously, I was very interested in your “take” on the latter and was sorry to hear it was disappointing in many respects; your review is making me even more eager to discover what I think of it myself. As for Eleven’s TV adaptation — well, I enjoyed it very much for the first few episodes but found my enthusiasm waning as the series progressed. Definitely worth watching IMO but ultimately at least a little disappointing.
    Egan is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to get to for ages but haven’t, which means I’ve had some deep, unarticulated reservations (too trendy, maybe?). At any event, I’ll eventually read my yellowing copy of Goon Squad (I’m always behind the times, I’m afraid) and take it from there!

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  3. Very bummed/surprised to hear that you didn’t like these – I haven’t read either, but was hoping to read both! The reliance on cliche in both strikes me as unfortunate; you and I tend to hold similar views on this in genre/literary genre fiction, so I’m inclined to think I wouldn’t enjoy these any more than you did…

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    • I approached these from a particular perspective, so if that’s different for you, you might have a different experience! I adored Mandel’s two previous books and so had incredibly high hopes for this one; I still enjoyed reading it but was disappointed because I was so excited beforehand (and I get especially annoyed with bad time travel!) With Egan, I didn’t like Goon Squad on a re-read and I wouldn’t have requested this ARC had I known it was so closely linked to Goon Squad. But yeah, I do think readers like you who know the SF genre well are less likely to vibe with these two.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a shame about both of these! I am reading The Group by the way and enjoying it more than the original, although all these babies and affairs sound exhausting and are making me appreciate my quiet life!

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  5. I didn’t like Sea of Tranquility as much as The Glass Hotel (the ending, especially, seemed a bit too neat), but still thought it was a great read. It may be that because I read a lot less SF, the tropes didn’t feel so stale for me. For instance, I liked the idea that Gaspery could go around changing things for the better.

    I’m not surprised about the Egan after the letdown of our attempted Goon Squad reread!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, unfortunately time travel that changes the past of your own timeline is just an automatic no from me (unless it’s more lighthearted – I can deal with Doctor Who and Back to the Future!)

      Like

  6. Pingback: April Superlatives | Laura Tisdall

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