The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf | March 24, 2020
For an author who writes in fragments, Emily St. John Mandel has an uncanny knack for shape. In Station Eleven, her breakout 2014 novel about a pandemic that kills more than ninety-nine percent of the global population, Mandel imaginatively flashes forward and backward in time, switches points of view, and uniquely disseminates backstory without eliding immediacy or propulsion. The book’s mosaic structure is navigable and inventive and sneakily builds toward unification; all along, the fragments were pieces of a whole. Yet for Mandel, fragmentation is not simply a structural conceit, but an essential tension felt by her characters. The people in Station Eleven’s post-disaster world yearn for the conveniences of their past and deride the depravity of their present, the linearity of their lives jumbled into a jigsaw. This marriage between form and content, theme and structure, fragment and whole, is part of what makes Station Eleven such a hugely successful novel, and a major reason why Mandel’s new book, The Glass Hotel, has been so widely anticipated.
Structural and thematic fragmentation is again at the forefront of The Glass Hotel. Characters weave in and out of each other’s lives like ghosts (and sometimes as ghosts), creating a web of intricate relationships and personal histories that, as in Station Eleven, coalesce into a singular vision. We follow characters affected by economic extremes, addiction, grief, and existentialism, with a central question tailing each: how can we become who we think we are when our lives have led us unexpectedly astray? In pursuing an answer, Mandel shows how an individual decision can alter the artifice of linear reality and enact infinite possibilities, even if these possibilities are imagined.
For all its moving parts, The Glass Hotel is anchored by Vincent Smith, a chameleonic young woman adept at morphing her identity. She opens the book with a disjointed monologue unbridled by space and time. (“Begin at the end,” is the first line of the chapter; “I am out of time—” is nearly the last.) The next chapter swerves viewpoints to Vincent’s heroin-addicted half-brother, Paul, who is on the brink of flunking out of the University of Toronto. One night at a club Paul mistakenly gives a guy bad ecstasy, and he dies. To escape any legal consequences, Paul flees to Vancouver to stay with Vincent, who is broke and mourning the mysterious death of her mother, who drowned when Vincent was thirteen. Five years later, the two of them find work for a luxury hotel on a remote island outside of British Columbia and their lives seem to stabilize. Yet when a malevolent message appears in acid marker on the hotel’s front windows—why don’t you swallow broken glass—Paul and Vincent’s paths irrevocably change.
Paul is the obvious culprit of the crime and is promptly fired, though what his message means and what his motivations were for writing it remain unclear. But something else significant happens the night Paul defaces the hotel: Vincent is courted by Jonathan Alkaitis, a recently widowed and emphatically rich investment broker, and she soon abandons her wayward life and enters Alkaitis’ “kingdom of money,” a world of cocktail parties and designer dresses and “bills she never saw.” In exchange for this privilege, Vincent is available “whenever he wanted her, in and out of the bedroom, [and] she would be elegant and impeccable at all times.” Together, she and Alkaitis play make-believe, pretending to be married and, sometimes, in love. Just before the kingdom of money crumbles, Alkaitis comments to a friend that Vincent has “a very particular kind of gift” where she “sees what a given situation requires and she adapts herself accordingly.” It is obvious why this talent is so appealing to Alkaitis: to live multiple lives at once is an unparalleled gift.
As it turns out, Alkaitis is a Bernie Madoff-esque conman who soon earns a lifetime prison sentence. While The Glass Hotel is not a novel about the 2008 financial crisis, Mandel brilliantly evokes the political and historical stakes of the crash by submarining deep into the personal and moral foundations of several people involved in or affected by the Ponzi scheme. In the book’s second and third acts, Mandel moves most of the narrative duties to characters directly caught in the scheme’s orbit: Alkaitis himself, in prison; Alkaitis’ employees, who narrate a section in the collective “we”; Olivia Collins, Alkaitis’ friend turned victim. After he is sentenced, Olivia wonders, “Would history remember Jonathan Alkaitis? Just another empty suit in a time of collapse and dissipation, architect of an embarrassingly unsophisticated scheme that had run for a while then imploded.” Here, Olivia identifies a slew of concurrent themes: how are we remembered and who does that remembering? What if the act of memory is unfaithful to reality? And how is the reality in our heads different than the reality of the physical world?
Try as they might, the characters in The Glass Hotel cannot erase their pasts nor their memories. Oskar, an employee of Alkaitis who wishes he whistle blew on the Ponzi scheme earlier, refers to his fantasies of moral action as “the ghost life.” In prison Alkaitis almost exclusively lives in an imaginary “counterlife” where he is visited by the ghosts of people whom he has wronged. Vincent and Paul live many lives in the two decades the novel spans, both longing to escape their pasts and merge their present with whatever version of themselves they still believe in. And then there is Leon Prevant, a character in both Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. In The Glass Hotel Leon has lost his life savings in the Ponzi scheme and now he and his wife live in the “shadow country” of the homeless and unemployed; in Station Eleven, Leon is a shipping executive who ultimately contracts the Georgia Flu. Although he is the same character in both books, the disparate circumstances of Mandel’s fictional worlds alter Leon’s life trajectory. His presence here seems a testament to Mandel’s project of examining the immeasurable possibilities available in a single life.
For all the metaphysical ponderings, The Glass Hotel’s most apparent virtue is its breakneck pacing and compulsive readability. It bodes an elegant and fragmented form, one that excellently matches Mandell’s magnificent storytelling. And what more needs to be said about her storytelling? It is nothing short of an insistent and astonishing gift.