The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue

Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel

Emily St. John Mandel
The Glass Hotel
(Knopf, 2020)

Emily St. John Mandel’s last novel, Station Eleven (2014), was a finalist for a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner, and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Station Eleven is an uncomfortably timely read—a post-pandemic tale of a world after the decimation of the population and collapse of borders but a world that still embraces Shakespeare: in the words of one character, mere “survival is insufficient.” Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel, has equally timely and deeply philosophical elements. While many readers will focus on the central conflict and action around a Madoff-like character and his global Ponzi scheme, and it’s likely this plot element that attracted NBC/Universal (who have purchased the rights), the novel is much more than a retelling of one of the 20th century’s most spectacular financial frauds. There is a complex grace to The Glass Hotel that’s often lacking from contemporary fiction, particularly contemporary thriller fiction. It’s not simply Mandel’s deft prose, her ability to write Dickensian networks of coincidence, but her keen observation of human behavior: our fears, our dreams, what drives us, and what might ultimately destroy or save each of us.

From the opening scene of the book, I was hooked. Mandel uses the “beginning is the ending” trope to good effect, creating a desire in the reader to know more about a drowning woman and just how she got into this dire situation. It’s a scene that haunted me as I read. The drowning woman Vincent, named by her poet mother after Edna St. Vincent Millay, is a superbly drawn character who will stay with you long after you finish this novel.

The book is split into three parts of unequal length and shifting narratives, seemingly disparate, but actually working to form a complex account of a group of people deeply affected by each other’s actions. After the opening section, “Vincent in the Ocean,” where we are told we are “Beginning at the end…” the novel then shifts to focus on Vincent’s step-brother, the troubled, drug-addicted musician/composer Paul. In “I Always Come to You (1994 and 1999)” we see Paul floundering through university, discovering an electronic-goth band “Baltica,” and falling for their violinist/singer Annika who sings the refrain “I always come to you.” Paul staggers through the nightclub scene eventually taking some dangerous “bright blue pills” and later passes the pills to Charlie Wu of Baltica, indirectly killing him. There are shifts in this chapter that signal the mildly experimental work Mandel does throughout the novel: Paul’s narrative is interspersed with confessional dialogue “at a rehab facility in Utah, twenty years later” and flashbacks to an earlier time when Paul is visiting family in the aftermath of a terrible loss. Shifting back to the present moment (1999) Paul runs away from Toronto and Charlie’s death to Vancouver in hopes of staying with Vincent who is having her own problems.

There is a sort of musicality to the novel that appears not only in Paul’s musical obsessions but also in the repetition of small phrases that are lyric-like throughout; appearing as sort of refrains or hints of connectivity. These phrases appear and reappear, shifting in meaning, working as connective threads: “I always come to you,” and “Sweep me up,” are just two of these phrases. “Sweep me up” appears in the opening scene of Vincent in the ocean and again in a flashback within Paul’s first section; we’re told later that “sweep me up” was the last utterance by Søren Kierkegaard in the film, Waking Life, and a phrase Vincent connects with throughout. Shifting into flashback, we see Vincent at 13: her mother has just disappeared and she’s scrawled “sweep me up” on a school window with acid paste, confusing the adults in her life and giving the reader important clues to her character—she’s not only already reading Kierkegaard but is also clearly subsumed by anger and grief. Throughout the course of her life, Vincent never seems to recover from the loss of her mother;first angry, then numb, then simply recreating herself over and over but always coming back to the central question: did her mother drown or was it suicide?

It’s also in Paul’s first section that we’re introduced to Vincent’s home—the remote village of Caiette near Port Hardy, a town “on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island.” The glass hotel that features so heavily in the novel is just being constructed nearby, in a place “pinned between the water and the forest.” The darkness of the forest, the isolation of the town and the hotel are key images in the novel that reoccur, working not just to set a tone but to influence characters’ moods and actions.

The novel moves to follow Paul who travels back to Toronto and doesn’t see Vincent again until the last day of 1999 when he, Vincent, and her friend Melissa go out to ring in the new century; the section ends with Paul hearing Annika’s voice in a dance remix at a club, the lyric “I always come to you” accompanying a visitation by the ghost of Charlie Wu.

The narrative then shifts to “The Hotel: Spring 2005” where someone has scrawled, “Why don’t you swallow broken glass,” in acid paste on the hotel’s glass wall. Vincent is now the bartender at the hotel and expresses her shock at the sight. The only people in the scene besides Vincent are a shipping executive, Leon Prevant, and a few staff including Paul who is working as a night houseman. The night manager Walter accuses Paul of the vandalism and Paul doesn’t argue; the assumption we can make is that Vincent wrote on the glass but we don’t know why or what it means. In this scene, on this night, key connections are made: Leon and Vincent both meet Jonathan Alkaitis—a Madoff-like financier whose many crimes serve as a central feature in the novel; Paul meets a woman (who we learn more about later on); Walter forces Paul to resign from his job (giving him the needed shove to create a life for himself); and the hotel sits at the center. When Walter first takes the job at the hotel, it’s described as exhibiting “a sense of being outside of time and space,” and “an improbable place lit up against the darkness of the forest.” Walter falls in love with the hotel and we can’t help but agree. And when Vincent makes the choice to leave with Alkaitis and enter the “kingdom of money,” we can’t help but wonder which is the greater darkness, the greater danger.

Vincent’s story progresses in “A Fairy Tale: 2005-2008” when she lives as Alkaitis’s trophy companion (she wears a ring but they never actually marry). She spends time at his home in Connecticut giving herself a schedule that includes nightly swims in an infinity pool “to strengthen her will because she was desperately afraid of drowning.” In an aside, we see Vincent’s mother discussing Millay’s poem, “Renascence” with her daughter, how the poem brought Millay out of poverty to Vassar, how “she raised herself into a new life by sheer force of will,” and we can’t help but read the parallel. Vincent is fully aware of the bargain she’s struck with Alkaitis but, like many of us, doesn’t see many options: “There’s a difference between being intelligent and knowing what to do with your life, there’s also a difference between knowing that a college degree might change your life and a willingness to actually commit to the terrifying weight of student loans.” What Alkaitis offers her is a different opportunity.

Vincent buys herself an expensive video camera: she has, we learn, been shooting video since her mother disappeared; five minute clips of ocean, various neighborhoods, street scenes, and later, five minute shots of the infinity pool. These short films are crucially important in the novel: Vincent discovers Paul using them as his in a retrospective at BAM causing an irrevocable break in their relationship, and later Vincent shoots a storm from the deck of a container ship and vanishes.

As we follow Vincent through the “kingdom of money” we learn that all is not well. Mandell gracefully introduces characters, different moments, different times—each shift serving to give greater depth to both the core conflicts and central characters of the novel. Everyone in this novel is connected. Alkaitis's chief investor, Lenny Xavier (a horrifyingly accurate music producer from L.A.), in a dinner conversation dismisses a talented artist for her “inability to recognize opportunity,” and we learn that the artist is Paul's obsession Annika. We can't help but think of Vincent's ability to negotiate her misgivings away to grasp the opportunity Alkaitis presents, “a transactional arrangement,” as she describes their relationship. We meet a painter living in Soho: Olivia, who appears on the scene and quickly shifts to flashback where we see her interacting with Alkaitis's beloved dead brother Lucas. She paints Lucas shortly before he dies and later, Alkaitis buys the painting for $200,000 at auction. Olivia also serves as a critique and a foil for Vincent as they travel together on Alkaitis's yacht in the last days before his arrest. Olivia sees through the pretense of the relationship and later we sympathize with her financial collapse.

Part Two of the novel starts in 2009 with Alkaitis in prison. He begins a self-delusional narrative about something he calls “the Counterlife”—a place where he can access beautiful hotels and see people from his past. For him, prison is somewhat of a relief presenting “the exquisite lightness of waking each morning” knowing that the worst has already happened. This section of the novel alternates between Alkaitis's prison narrative and Vincent as she moves on with her life. In “Seafarer 2008-2013” we see Vincent coming to terms with her life outside the kingdom of money, a life where she acknowledges that “luxury is weakness.” Desperate to escape after she waits on her former best friend in a bar and that friend ignores her completely, Vincent runs to the beach, sees a container ship in the distance and decides to go to sea. Her mother had briefly worked on a Coast Guard vessel and in yet another effort to connect with her lost mother, Vincent signs on to work as a cook on a container vessel. Vincent also remembers meeting a shipping executive at the hotel (Prevant) and his obvious enthusiasm for his job. Later we see Vincent and her fellow crew member/lover Bell discussing life and she claims, “I've never been so happy.” We very much want to believe her.

Again the novel shifts back to Alkaitis and the Counterlife (2015) where we see him slipping away from sanity into an alternate universe and is visited by the ghost of one of his chief investors, Faisal—a Saudi prince who committed suicide. In the last section of Part Two, “A Fairy Tale 2008,” Alkatis's crime is exposed and Vincent faces down the reality of the collapse of her fairy tale. Vincent spends “the last morning in the kingdom of money” traveling through midtown: she sees her mother in a crowd of tourists and later has a panic attack, convinced that “if she went into the subway she would die.” Alkaitis summons her to his office where his staff is shredding documents; the section ends with the question from Alkaitis to Vincent “do you know what a Ponzi scheme is?”

In Part Three, Alkaitis's staff appears in sections entitled “The Office Chorus” where they are shown in the various roles supporting the fraud and we see each escape or collapse. Vincent walks out on Alkaitis and one of Alkaitis’s staff, Oskar, follows her to a luxury apartment on Columbus Circle where they sleep together; Oskar sees Olivia's painting of Alkaitis's brother in the apartment and weeps over what she's lost, what all the victims have lost.

The novel then follows the fall-out from the exposure of the fraud including Olivia's attendance at the trial and shifts forward in time to Alkaitis in his “counterlife” where he now sees ghosts of all those whose deaths are connected to his crimes: Olivia, Yvette Bertolli, Faisal, and others. There is a brief flashback to an evening with Alkaitis at dinner with his dead wife Suzanne. They see Ella Kaspersky, a woman who reported to Alkaitis to the SEC long before he's caught. Suzanne walks past Ella and whispers, “Why don't you swallow broken glass,” and another thread is connected.

The final sections of the novel shift across time and characters. “Shadow Country December 2018” shows Leon Prevant, whose savings and career were wiped out by the fraud, living in an RV with his wife while they work menial jobs. They have become “citizens of a shadow country that in his previous life he'd only dimly perceived, a country located at the edge of an abyss.” A former co-worker contacts Leon to investigate the suspicious death of a young woman who has fallen off a container ship; a woman who “came and went between land and sea for five years, until she disappeared one night off the coast of Mauritania.” It is, it seems, possible to disappear in “the space between two countries.” Like Leon in the Shadow Country, Alkaitis in his Counterlife, Olivia in Soho, and so many other characters in the novel, Vincent has fallen into a space between and disappeared.

The final sections of the novel show Walter staying on as lone caretaker at the now-closed glass hotel, Paul in Edinburgh having a drink with Ella and later in a heroin-high seeing Vincent at the moment she dies, and finally “Vincent in the Ocean” bringing the novel full circle to the opening scene. At the close of the novel, Vincent is filming a storm-swelled sea. She repeats the phrase “sweep me up” like a refrain from a well-wrought symphony as she disappears and the ocean swells, the uplift ending the novel in a moment of perfect tragedy. It is a superbly wrought ending to the novel: a stunningly good meditation on human frailty, the nature of love, and what it means to survive in the modern world.


Yvonne C. Garrett

Yvonne C. Garrett holds an MLIS, an MFA-Fiction, two MAs (NYU), and a Ph.D. with a dissertation focused on women in Punk.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

All Issues