Review: The Glass Hotel

Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel has had a good couple of years when it comes to name recognition, courtesy of her 2014 apocalyptic plague novel Station Eleven, which has found its way onto a number of coronavirus-inspired listicles lately. Her fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, published in March last year, is similar in tone and structure if not in content: like Station Eleven, it centres on a world-shattering event, in this case the arrest of the Madoffesque banker Jonathan Alkaitis for running a major Ponzi scheme, and traces the ripple effects of that event, both forward and back in time, upon a cast of conflicted but ultimately likable – or at least sympathetic – characters.

Those characters include Alkaitis himself – Mandel writes evocatively about his ability to compartmentalise the wrong he’s doing, to think of himself as a good person despite knowing he’s doing something very wrong – as well as his trophy “wife”, Vincent, a former bartender who has traded personal independence for a life of indolent wealth; Vincent’s drifter brother Paul; and a shipping consultant, Leon, who’s assigned to investigate Vincent’s disappearance in the aftermath of Alkatis’ fall.

Each of these characters is, in their own way, quite charming, even when they’re in the throes of making terrible, destructive decisions, or attempting to justify the harm they’ve caused. Mandel’s gift for extending grace to even the worst of the people she writes about is very much on display here: it’s quite something to find oneself feeling sorry for a financier who’s bankrupted countless ordinary people in the course of enriching himself.

I’m reminded here of Mandel’s earlier novel The Singer’s Gun, in which we are again asked to sympathise with a white-collar criminal – in this case a former people smuggler named Anton who’s used the skills he learned in that trade to forge himself a new identity and con his way into a cushy office job. There’s something interesting going on with class and money in these novels, I think: Vincent and Anton (and to some extent Alkaitis) are working-class folk who use deception of different kinds to gain access to “the kingdom of money”, as Mandel calls it in The Glass Hotel, and ultimately lose that kingdom. The glittering edifice of middle- and upper-class-ness is revealed as an illusion. We also see this a bit in Station Eleven, I think: the wealth Miranda gains from her marriage to Arthur does nothing to save her from the Georgia flu.

These are novels, then, that are partly about the corrosive effect of money, the lure and the lie of extreme wealth. An age-old topic, certainly. I can’t quite make my mind up, though, whether it’s entirely a good thing that we’re able to sympathise with people smugglers and Ponzi schemers; whether the textual argument that “oh they just stumbled into it they’re nice people really” is one that we should accept. Part of what gives me pause is the tone of these novels, the grace, the charm, the semi-nostalgic rose-tint that comes from their achronological structure and from their gentle characterisation: there’s something about that tone that distances us, cushions us, from the full weight of the characters’ decisions. This is what makes these books lovely, of course. But I wouldn’t mind seeing something a little raw, a little ugly from them.

As it is, sweet though The Glass Hotel was when I was reading it, it’s not a novel that I found particularly memorable: it slipped down easily, quickly, presenting little resistance. Aesthetically, it’s also very similar to The Singer’s Gun: both novels have broadly the same thematic goals, I think. Given this similarity between novels that effectively bookend Mandel’s novelistic career – The Singer’s Gun was her second novel – I’m not sure how much I need to read another one. Still: The Glass Hotel was an enjoyable enough read, and fairly compelling on the Ponzi scheme stuff; I daresay you’d probably like it.

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