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NPR Arts & Life

Staying At Home? Check Into Emily St. John Mandel's Haunting 'Glass Hotel'

"It's hard to focus right now."

I've heard versions of that sentence on the phone, in person (at a distance), on email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, on Zoom and Skype and all the other devices and online platforms we're using to stay connected with each other these days.

It's hard to focus right now.

So recommending a book can seem, well, out-of-touch. Unless, that is, the recommendation is for a novel that's so absorbing, so fully realized that it draws you out of your own constricted situation and expands your sense of possibilities. For me, over the past 10 days or so, the novel that's performed that act of deliverance has been The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel.

Mandel's last novel was the acclaimed, mega-bestseller, Station Eleven — a post-apocalyptic tale about a troupe of actors roaming around North America after a virus has wiped out most of the world's population. The critical consensus on Station Eleven was that it would be a near impossible novel to top; mercifully, Mandel struck off in a totally different direction. The Glass Hotelisn't dystopian fiction; rather it's "straight" literary fiction, gorgeous and haunting, about the porous boundaries between past and present, the rich and the poor, and the realms of the living and the dead.

Intricate, interlocking narratives are Mandel's signature, but to keep plot summary to a minimum, I'll just acknowledge two main story strands here. The first concerns a woman named Vincent (named after the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay), whose fall off a container ship into a storm-tossed nighttime ocean, opens and closes the novel.

Vincent is tough and beautiful and, in her youth, she worked as a bartender at a luxury hotel on a remote island in British Columbia. The hotel's general manager describes the allure of the place this way: "Our guests ... want to come to the wilderness, but they don't want to be inthe wilderness. They just want to lookat it, ideally through the window of a luxury hotel. ... There's an element of surrealism to it, frankly."

Late one night when Vincent is on duty behind the bar, a message etched in acid appears on the glass wall of the hotel lounge. The message reads: "Why don't you swallow broken glass."Vincent, for reasons we readers won't totally grasp 'till the end of the novel, is so deeply shaken by this message that she seizes her first opportunity, in the form of a wealthy man who walks into the bar, and escapes the hotel into what she will later call "the kingdom of money."

The second major narrative focuses on that very same wealthy man, whose name is Jonathan Alkaitis and who's closely modeled on Bernie Madoff. Jonathan is an exquisite con artist whose Ponzi scheme, when it eventually collapses, causes a lot of collateral damage. I'm not giving much away here because Mandel's novel jumps around in time, so we know early on that Jonathan will trade the high life for a jail cell — a cell where he'll occasionally see the flickering ghosts of some of the clients whose lives he pulverized.

Indeed, most of the characters in this novel are visited by spirits and come to realize that the barrier between worlds seen and unseen is as transparent and vulnerable to breakage as that glass hotel wall. There's also a social dimension to Mandel's theme here about how things in life aren't as solid as we might assume.

One of Jonathan's Ponzi scheme victims — an older man named Leon — finds himself scraping by in his golden years, driving a broken down RV from one temporary job to another at big box stores and fairgrounds across the country. At a truck stop, Leon becomes aware of the young girls who are working as prostitutes. We're told that:

Leon knew that he and [his wife] were luckier than most citizens of the shadow country, they had each other and the RV and enough money (just barely) to survive, but the essential marker of citizenship was the same for everyone: they'd all been cut loose, they'd slipped beneath the surface of the United States, they were adrift.

This all-encompassing awareness of the mutability of life grows more pronounced as The Glass Hotel reaches its eerie sea change of an ending. In dramatizing so ingeniously how precarious and changeable everything is, Mandel's novel is topical in a way she couldn't have foreseen when she was writing it.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.