The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel

A curious arrangement of disjointed parts and pieces, loosely clustered around participants in, and victims of, a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, tied more or less together by the character of Vincent, a young woman whose life reads like that of a vibrant seedling who’s had the bad fortune to be planted in poisoned soil.

Coincidence plays a large part here, as lives intersect, diverge and intersect again; so much coincidence one, actually, that one must assume it is intended as a theme.  The wide-ranging and unpredictable impacts of our weaknesses and moral lapses are certainly another theme, as are guilt and self-justification.  Is all this, perhaps, intended as an indictment of the American obsession with financial success and individual freedom? Unclear. 

(I first wrote that reference as ‘North American’ obsession, in deference to the author, protagonist and several settings being in Canada, but on reflection recall that all the truly serious transgressions in this tale are by those from “south of the border”, so the critique is from the outside, looking in.  An idea reinforced by the clearly-intentional pun of using “south of the border”, in reference to us – as in U.S. – rather than those predominantly brown nations to which we refer when using it.)

One suspects a great deal of research went into the writing here, from the shipping industry to prison life, geography of remote British Columbia, ultra-wealthy Manhattan real estate lifestyle, career arcs in the art world, etc., etc.  A writer searching for a worthy subject, perhaps?    One result of these multiple settings and worlds is a blizzarding roster of characters, enough so that I found myself paging back to try to differentiate them and place them where they belong in it all.  That one single scene – ‘The Office Chorus,’ recounting the day Jonathan is arrested – goes on for nearly sixty pages and feels very like a separate novel in gestation, adds to the discontinuity and confusion. 

And then there are the ghosts.  As tragic fates are sealed, several characters die off for various reasons, only to appear and reappear as ghosts to those still living.  For imprisoned con-man Jonathan they are justified as a symptom of mental illness, but others do not share that excuse.  One wonders then how the author feels toward the phenomenon: is the point to suggest ghosts are really a real thing, or is this just a literary device?  Again, unclear.  

I recently heard or read some snippet about an author who, finding themself in possession of multiple story fragments none of which were gelling into a novel, chose to assemble them all and see what might arise.  Though The Glass Hotel feels like it could well have come out of such a process, it is still fresh, intriguing and a good read, as we’ve come to expect from Mandel. 

(Too bad Vincent is not coming back, as I’d like to have spent more time with her in other adventures.)

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