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Calamity and its potential to transform us haunt Emily St. John Mandel’s fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, just as they did her 2014 post-apocalyptic bestseller, Station Eleven. The characters in that previous novel pick through the detritus of civilization after a pandemic. In The Glass Hotel, the significant characters are all connected to a financier, Jonathan Alkaitis—based on Bernie Madoff—whose high-performing assets management firm is in fact a gigantic Ponzi scheme. All but one of the novel’s characters are present in the titular hotel, a luxury establishment on a remote spit of Vancouver Island (what its manager describes as “a five-star experience in a place where your cell phone doesn’t work”), during a few fateful days in the spring of 2005. That’s where they catch their dooms. Alkaitis’ scheme is communicable, and he is its carrier. Most of the novel’s characters will lose all their savings, and Alkaitis himself, as the omniscient narrator informs the reader early on, will end up in prison.
The question of what people keep when they lose everything clearly intrigues Mandel, even if the disaster in The Glass Hotel is far less cataclysmic than the “Georgian Flu” that kills most of humanity in Station Eleven. One character, Vincent, a former bartender at the hotel, lives with Alkaitis for three years in a frictionless realm she thinks of as the “kingdom of money,” complying with his request that she pretend to be his wife although they aren’t actually married. Another character, a middle-aged shipping-industry executive, first appears as a guest of the hotel, where he and his wife celebrate their wedding anniversary, and after the 2008 crash ends up roaming the nation in an RV. That guy, Leon Prevant, is also a minor character in Station Eleven, where he suffers a different fate. Most the characters in The Glass Hotel, including employees of Alkaitis who are accomplices to his crimes, pause occasionally to muse about alternate universes in which they’d chosen different paths or, as Vincent thinks at one point, “the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been swiftly contained.”
There’s a theory that stories enthrall human beings because they engage our fascination with causality—the speculative faculty that’s behind our evolutionary success. We like to run scenarios and see how they play out. If Leon Prevant had not, for example, happened to check into the hotel at the same time as Alkaitis; or if his wife had not had a headache that night; or if he had not responded by heading down to the bar for a drink, he might have retired comfortably, as he’d planned. If Olivia Collins—a painter who had a moment back in 1950s bohemian New York but whose career never amounted to much—had not gone to an art opening back then and met the kid brother of the gifted, heroin-addicted Lucas Alkaitis, she would not have reencountered Lucas’ kid brother 50 years later and decided to trust him with her life savings. Or if Vincent’s half-brother Paul hadn’t met the only person sharp enough to see through Alkaitis from the start, he might not have blundered forward into a surprisingly successful career as an avant-garde composer.
These pivotal incidents are the result of chance, like Oedipus running into his father on the road to Thebes—except that was fate, right? The Glass Hotel does not appear to be a novel that believes in fate, yet its characters keep intersecting in ways that seem improbable. (Leon, for instance, not only stays in the hotel where Vincent works as a bartender, but he also gets hired to help investigate her death years later.) Vincent was named after the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay; her mother once told her that she picked the name because Millay, born into working-class poverty, “raised herself into a new life by sheer force of will.” To be swept up—as Vincent is by Alkaitis’ wealth, as his employees are by the momentum of what they call “the Arrangement,” as Alkaitis himself is by the way the bogus returns his scheme delivers only whet his clients’ desires for more of the same—is the opposite of forging a life out of sheer will. But will has its limits. The Arrangement itself demonstrates that wishing and believing hard enough cannot make it so, or at least not forever.
Is there a discernible theme or moral in this web of tales? Certainly not the rather portentous message of Station Eleven, with its testimonial to the enduring value of art. But this novel’s pointlessness, paradoxically, becomes one of its great strengths. By some miracle, although it’s hard to determine what it’s about, The Glass Hotel is never dull. Tracing the permutations of its characters’ lives, from depressing apartments in bad neighborhoods to posh Dubai resorts to Manhattan bars, Colorado campgrounds, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is like following the intricate patterns on Moroccan tiles. The pleasure, which in the case of The Glass Hotel is abundant, lies in the patterns themselves, not in anything they mean. This is a type of art that closely approximates life, and a remarkable accomplishment for Mandel, whose prose style in this novel is more transparent and less deliberately fussy and “literary” than in Station Eleven. This novel invites you to inhabit it without striving or urging; it’s a place to be, always fiction’s most welcome effect.
Mandel doesn’t always steer clear of self-conscious choices. The characters, especially the ones who have wronged others, have a tendency to see ghosts, the objective reality of which is confirmed by various clues. Locked up for 170 years in a minimum security joint, Alkaitis loses himself in phantasms—not just of the dead but of the other life he might have been living if he’d had the sense to flee to some other nation before the jig was up. That makes sense; why shouldn’t a lifer retreat into an imaginary world? And why shouldn’t he feel guilty? Only Alkaitis doesn’t, not really. One of the canniest aspects of The Glass Hotel is Mandel’s depiction of how people rationalize the ways they have harmed others. Waiting in line for his prison meal, Alkaitis thinks,
It’s possible to know you’re a criminal, a liar, a man of weak moral character, and yet not know it, in the sense of feeling that your punishment is somehow undeserved, that despite the cold facts you’re deserving of warmth and some kind of special treatment. You can know that you’re guilty of an enormous crime, that you stole an immense amount of money from multiple people and that this caused destitution for some of them and suicide for others, you can know all of this and yet still somehow feel you’ve been wronged when your judgment arrives.
The novel’s apparitions of the dead feel like a literary device; this realization just feels true. As does a remarkable little description of how one of Alkaitis’ staff members, recognizing that it is only a matter of days until the FBI comes to arrest her, signs her children out of school and drags them through a series of outings (FAO Schwarz, the Children’s Museum, hot chocolate) repeating “Isn’t this fun?” and tearing up, “alternately lavishing them with attention and disappearing into her phone.”* Later, when she writes them from prison about this supposedly radiant afternoon, “what they mostly remembered was the cold, their wet feet, the feeling of wrongness, the gray of Manhattan in the winter rain.”
A handful of the characters in The Glass Hotel find a way of being in the world that isn’t riddled with such wrongness. They do it by choosing paths that others regard as baffling, such as the hotel’s former night manager, who stays on as the solitary and deeply happy caretaker after the place closes down. “We move through this world so lightly,” Leon’s wife remarks as the couple sits on a New Mexico picnic bench by their RV, and while he finds this observation troubling, it is the closest thing to a recommendable ethos the novel has to offer. Neither sheer will nor being swept up gets them there. Perhaps the point is that these characters finally understand themselves, and act accordingly? Sure, let’s go with that take. For readers, however, just getting to know them is more than enough.
Correction, March 24, 2020: This article originally misspelled F.A.O. Schwarz.