Back in early 2020, when the novel coronavirus still felt, well, novel, the internet was inundated with articles about how to pass the time in quarantine. In those hazy early days, we lived under the delusion that the virus would not be with us for long. The articles reflected this idea; they were cheeky little pieces, often in the form of search-optimized lists, with winking references to bunkers and claustrophobia. Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed fourth novel, Station Eleven, was a fixture in these pieces. The synopsis was a perfect fit for the moment: A theatre troupe reckons with the fallout from a deadly pandemic. The attention was, and still is, earned; the prose is clean and understated, and the book moves ably across time and points of view. Although Mandel’s fictional virus—a particularly nasty strain of swine flu—far outstrips the human toll of the coronavirus, it offers potent parallels to our time, and how we respond to the consequences of disaster.
The Glass Hotel, Mandel’s follow-up, addresses a different, more fractured kind of disaster. It urges us to “begin at the end,” where we find our first-person narrator, Vincent, plummeting into the sea. The year is 2018, but Vincent is both literally and figuratively “out of time.” She is drifting across lyrical fragments of her life, moving “between memories like walking from one room to the next.” After this enigmatic opening, Mandel shifts into a roving third-person point of view, through which we are introduced to the titular glass hotel, also known as Hotel Caiette. In the hotel, we encounter most of the novel’s primary players, including Paul, Vincent’s troubled half-brother; Walter, the hotel’s night manager; Leon Prevant, a shipping executive; Jonathan Alkaitis, the hotel’s owner and a wealthy financier; and Vincent herself, in a much younger form. The connection between these figures is initially unclear, until Mandel slowly reveals they are all united by a common calamity: a collapsed Ponzi scheme.
The mechanics of the scheme mirror the Bernie Madoff story at almost every level: there are backdated trades, suspicious returns, and ruined investors. While this material might sound like fodder for a financial thriller, Mandel is engaged in a more contemplative project. She is interested in probing the scheme’s psychological conditions rather than explicating its minute details. To access these conditions, the novel flits across time and space. Alkaitis, the scheme’s Madoff figure, looms over the novel. There is hardly a space he doesn’t touch, from his hotel—which sits alone in the wilderness, on the remote northern tip of Vancouver Island—to a prison in Florence, South Carolina, where he whiles away his days dreaming of a “counterlife.” In this counterlife, he has fled to Dubai, where he lives free of his crime’s consequences. As he serves his sentence, he slips more and more into this parallel reality.
However, Mandel denies him total escape: the prison and eventually the counterlife itself are haunted by the ghosts of his victims. With the exception of Vincent—his former fake wife—most of these ghosts exist along the edges of the narrative. Despite their transience, they loom over Alkaitis’s daily life. They are reminders, in many ways, of the privileged place he once occupied. As he states, “money is a country,” and he has fallen out of its protection. Without his wealth—and without his physical freedom—he is no longer able to dictate the terms of his existence, as much as he might try. He is subject to the whims of the world, both banal and supernatural. Although Mandel positions this existence as a kind of justice, she complicates that outcome with Alkaitis’s decided lack of contrition. Even if Alkaitis no longer has a place in the kingdom of money, he is still a product (and a producer) of its cultural context.
The members of Alkaitis’s asset management team were never quite part of the kingdom of money, but they too are dealing with the consequences of the scheme’s collapse. Although they don’t encounter Alkaitis’s personal ghosts, they’re haunted by their time as his co-conspirators. As the novel progresses, they discard their peripheral status and move to the fore, where they speak as a chorus. The individuals are not lost in this chorus; the reader spends time in the heads of everyone in that ill-fated office. From their perspectives, we come to understand the mental and emotional toll exacted by the scheme. It is a crime of constant upkeep, and the characters suffer under the weight of the paranoia and the guilt. Mandel’s subtle, unvarnished sentences shine here; the collective voice grants us access to mass interiority through an unsparing lens. From the moment the chorus comes in, we understand the co-conspirators’ guilt is both individual and communal: “We had crossed a line, that much was obvious, but it was difficult to say later exactly where that line had been. Or perhaps we’d all had different lines, or crossed the same line at different times.” This is not a community that offers real protection, though—as the scheme collapses, the co-conspirators’ individual actions undermine any sense of solidarity. The characters scramble across their insular office, sniping at each other and dreaming of exit strategies.
Escape is not forthcoming. With the exception of Alkaitis’s relatively innocent receptionist, who is left “with a really excellent cocktail story,” all of the co-conspirators are harmed by the experience. Unlike Alkaitis, they can only make occasional escapes into lush counterlives. After serving time in prison, they “emerge into an altered world in various states of disarray.” In this strange new world, they’re forced to reckon with the damage they’ve done. Their physical freedom does not offer escape. This is also true of Enrico, the one co-conspirator who manages to flee the country. To the rest of the group, he is a “heroic figure, leading a life of verve and mystery,” but the reality is much starker than that: even abroad, he “can’t escape the dread” of being apprehended. The scheme doesn’t offer much to its supposed beneficiaries, other than fear and fracture. Mandel asks us to feel sympathy for these inferior devils, but the multiplicity of the collective voice keeps us at arm’s length. We are never quite implicated in their wrongdoing.
Indeed, I get the distinct feeling that Mandel would rather have us sympathize with the drifters of her world. Vincent, our way into the narrative, is the heart of the novel. Apart from her propulsive monologues, which bookend the novel, she is not a character who is tied to one way of existing in the world. She displays astonishing social mobility. She goes from tending the bar at the Hotel Caiette to occupying a prime spot in the Connecticut suburbs at Alkaitis’s side. The benefits of the sham marriage are obvious: stability, material comfort, and unfettered access to the kingdom of money. But the position is ultimately one of stifling subservience. Vincent is contractually obligated to “be available whenever he [Alkaitis] wanted her, in and out of the bedroom,” and to “be elegant and impeccable at all times.” As Alkaitis’s fake wife, she acts as a signifier of stability, and little more. It’s an unsustainable life for an able drifter. When the Ponzi scheme collapses, the arrangement fractures; Vincent is forced to weather the dramatic lifestyle change alone. She goes from Alkaitis’s kingdom of money to life onboard a freightliner. Like other periods of change in her life, this move largely happens off the page. The drifting, it would seem, is not an end unto itself. Rather, Mandel seems to position the identity of the drifter as a kind of ideal in a world in upheaval. There is an admiration, here, of the transitory soul.
The life of Leon, a victim of Alkaitis’s collapsed scheme, is a continuation of this tendency. After his savings go up in flames, Leon and his wife Marie abandon their house and take off in an RV. This life doesn’t bring salvation; indeed, the former shipping executive ends the novel yearning to be “more anchored to this earth.” Yet, Mandel imbues Leon’s sections with bursts of humanity, most notably when the novel finds him “rhapsodizing on his industry at excessive length.” And it is Leon who comes the closest to the “shadow country,” which acts as the counterpart to Alkaitis’s kingdom of money. The shadow country is the domain of the poor. In the shadow country there is fear and precarity; the “citizens” of this country have “slipped beneath the surface of society, into a territory without comfort or room for error.” But Leon is not a natural-born citizen of this country. He is an immigrant of sorts, and he sees the country through the eyes of an ethnographer. He observes the hitchhikers and the young girls emerging from the cabs of trucks, and he feels that these people might not always be his own; he holds onto the slim hope of a return to life in corporate America. The reader knows, however, that this is impossible. Leon will stay beneath the surface.
In this world of parallel countries and existences, it’s difficult to get a handle on what’s worth holding onto. Like the novel’s more transient characters, success in this world is slippery, and often temporary; the possibility of a backslide is always present. Yet, Mandel succeeds in grounding the narrative. She delivers a wide-ranging tale of ruin and reckoning, without ever leaving the reader unmoored. For a writer so concerned with fracture, she’s remarkably good at keeping disparate elements all in one piece. In crisis, she creates cohesion—perhaps even community. Instead of embracing the insularity of Alkaitis’s counterlife, Mandel looks outward. The Glass Hotel reminds us there’s a whole world out there, beyond the boundaries of our bunkers.