Between health insurance snafus, engaged younger brothers, mysterious muscle knots, and memes I don’t get, I’ve started feeling old. So it was comforting to attend a classical concert last week—my first one since before the pandemic—and still be the youngest in the room. The employee scanning tickets even told me excitedly that I was the second person ever to use their “add tickets to Apple Wallet” feature.
The performers were Voces8, my favorite choral group. The last time I’d seen them in person was November 2019 in Kalamazoo, Michigan—three states, thirty-two months, and half a lifetime away. Since that first concert, I’d graduated, gotten married, moved, enrolled again, made new friends, lost a grandparent, given up my faith in American democracy, learned to cook. Voces8 had changed too: a new second soprano, a new space-themed program called stardust.
The only thing connecting these two points in space-time was me, my then-fiancée-now-spouse, and the singers—ten humans who, thanks to the whims of tour schedules and admissions committees and anniversary dates, just so happened to reconvene in the Spanish Courtyard at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York.
Of course, I don’t know for certain that no one else from that first Kalamazoo concert was also there in Katonah. These tendrils that tie distant moments together are invisible and uncountable.
Come to think of it, who was the first person to add their tickets to their Apple Wallet? Another graduate student, weighing not just the age but the income gaps between themselves and their white-haired, Lexus-driving fellow concertgoers? Or one of those rare tech-savvy grandparents, their grandkids’ faces flashing briefly on the lockscreen before the QR code appears?
One of my favorite writers is Emily St. John Mandel, and I love her work because she captures this swirling, kaleidoscopic, woven quality of life in late capitalism. In her most famous book Station Eleven, a few chance encounters in a theater and a corporate headquarters lead, after a cataclysmic pandemic, to connections that enable survival. In The Glass Hotel, the aftermath of a Ponzi scheme reaches not just to New York but to a dying hotel in the Vancouver Island wilderness, and in Mandel’s latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, these connections spread through future generations—an author’s interplanetary book tour in 2203 is the key to an investigator’s quandary in 2401. Mandel’s novels spray mist onto modernity’s invisible tendrils, doppling them with beads of light.
But Mandel’s message is not just that technology, travel, and memory bring the world together. They can also rip it apart. Pandemics, after all, spread along these tendrils. The same person unluckily attends two concerts, and all of a sudden you’ve got a superspreader event. A bad decision is made in a lab or a boardroom or an oval office, and thousands die.
Nor do we all share the interconnected world in the same way. Another thing I love about The Glass Hotel is its depiction of the world’s economic elite: they float along in a fantasy world propped up by invisible numbers, both reaching towards and trying to flee the plane everyone else occupies. They are both vulnerable and insulated, both complicit and ignorant. They opt in and out of reality until—unless—it catches up with them.
Thinking about the world on this scale is always both comforting and terrifying. Nothing we do matters, but everything we do could matter, and we don’t have the authorial spray bottle to uncover which is which. We just spin and spin these tendrils of reality, hoping to weave a blanket rather than a net.
Maybe this is just what too many speculative novels and ethereal choral pieces do to your brain: dislocate it from the day-to-day and turn it toward the cosmic. But what if the cosmic is the real day-to-day? That’s what Mandel’s novels argue, I think: that it’s not an indulgence but a necessity to see ourselves as nodes in a vast network. Or, better (and less Silicon Valley tech-bro): snowflakes in a cosmic snowglobe, balls in a cosmic Bingo game.
No, still too mechanistic. I’ll try one more time: we’re singers, we’re concertgoers, each day brings a new program, and the show must go on.
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with majors in English and music, and he has since earned master’s degrees from Western Michigan University and Princeton Theological Seminary. This fall, he’s starting a PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia (so his plans to be in school forever are working well). When not writing, he can be found learning the alto recorder, watching obscure Disney movies, and making excruciating puns.