Bad timing: Emily St. John Mandel is releasing a novel in the middle of a pandemic that has shuttered libraries and bookstores across the country.
But don’t let that dystopian classic overshadow her new novel, “The Glass Hotel.” In this story, Mandel focuses on a different kind of apocalypse: Her inspiration is Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme. The real pathogen this time around is deceit. Everyone in these pages is eager to wash their hands of culpability, but the wreckage keeps spreading, infecting an ever-widening group of friends and colleagues.
“The Glass Hotel” may be the perfect novel for your survival bunker. It remains freshly mysterious despite its self-spoiling plot. Mandel is always casually revealing future turns of success or demise in ways that only pique our curiosity. Indeed, the fate of the story’s heroine appears in a brief, impressionistic preface, but you won’t fully appreciate that opening until you finish the whole novel and begin obsessively reading it again.
Told in a relentless stream of disclosure, the story swirls around two troubled siblings, an addict named Paul and his “absurdly gorgeous” half sister, Vincent. Though never particularly close, they find themselves working together in a remote five-star resort on Vancouver Island. Beyond the reach of cellphones, accessible only by boat, the luxurious Hotel Caiette is a “glass-and-cedar palace” at the water’s edge, with ancient trees closing in. An ominous mix of opulence and dread is heightened early one morning when a phrase appears written in acid across a window in the lobby: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.”
As graffiti, that’s weird and threatening, like some freebie Jenny Holzer. The phrase alters the entire ambiance of the hotel. “The forest outside seemed newly dark,” Mandel writes, “the shadows dense and freighted with menace.” Staring at the window, the night manager realizes with a shudder that someone must have crept out into the woods and written those words onto the glass backward. The determination implicit in such an odd act of vandalism only unsettles him more.
But the arrival of the hotel’s wealthy owner, Jonathan Alkaitis, immediately distracts everyone from the graffiti. Indeed, this is a novel constantly testing our attention to details. A baleful fog moves across all these chapters, as the story drifts from one character to another. Alkaitis is a charming investment wizard who always makes time for new friends. When he falls for Vincent, she trades her bartending job at the hotel for the life of a trophy wife in New York City. “She had studied the habits of the moneyed with diligence,” Mandel writes. “She copied their modes of dress and speech, and cultivated an air of carelessness.” She may not feel any particular passion for Alkaitis, who is 34 years her senior, but she’s a dutiful chameleon, adaptable to the requirements of any social or romantic situation. That may sound like the requirements of a much older profession, but Vincent rationalizes away that unseemly thought. “Do you have to actually be in love for a relationship to be real,” she asks herself, “whatever real means?”
Mandel is a consummate, almost profligate world builder. One superbly developed setting gives way to the next, as her attention winds from character to character, resting long enough to explore the peculiar mechanics of each life before slipping over to the next. From the woodland hotel, she moves to New York City, where she delves into the fraudulent maneuvers of high finance — a candy castle spun from the sugary strands of avarice.
That Mandel manages to cover so much, so deeply is the abiding mystery of this book. The 300 pages of “The Glass Hotel” work harder than most 600-page novels. When she turns to the art world, to a federal prison, to an international cargo ship, each realm rises out of the dark waters of her imagination with just as much substance as that hotel on the shore of Vancouver Island. The disappointment of leaving one story is immediately quelled by our fascination in the next.
No one character moves through all these places, but what binds the novel is its focus on the human capacity for self-delusion, particularly with regards to our own innocence. Rare, fortunately, is the moral idiot who can boast, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” The complex, troubled people who inhabit Mandel’s novel are vexed and haunted by their failings, driven to create ever more pleasant reflections of themselves in the glass.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf. 301 pp. $26.95
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