I had the perverse good luck to pick up Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” — a novel about a virus that wipes out all but a vestige of human civilization — when the first reports on the coronavirus were coming out of China.
I did occasionally wonder if there was something masochistic in my urge to keep reading. But the book, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, was so fascinatingly detailed and structured, so inventive in its handling of its characters’ shifting fates and perspectives, that there was no resisting it. Its intricate time scheme was a thing of wonder. Its fresh, canny prose was spellbinding, no matter how nightmarish the scenarios it portrayed. In some small way, it prepared me for what was coming to our shores.
Mandel’s brilliant new novel, “The Glass Hotel,” is equally artful in its time-skipping, globe-hopping immersion in its characters’ lives — and it’s not, thank goodness, about a virus. Like “Station Eleven,” it’s a puzzle book. But it isn’t puzzling for the sake of being puzzling.
Instead, Mandel’s exquisite narratorial juggling is her way of casting light on how we see our lives and attempt to shape them — in retrospect, in anticipation, in our imaginations.
The book opens on a ship in an Atlantic Ocean storm where a woman named Vincent falls (accidentally?) into the watery darkness below. As she drowns, touchstone images from various phases of her life play vividly in her mind as she crosses some borderline that lets her “move between memories like walking from one room to the next.”
The book’s subsidiary characters serve as prisms through which to catch glimpses of this quiet, self-possessed yet wayward young woman. First up is her 18-year-old half-brother, Paul, a recovering heroin addict who’s baffled as to what his duties are toward 13-year-old Vincent after her mother vanishes while kayaking off the isolated community of Caiette, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, where the family lives.
And the action keeps sliding in destabilizing directions. Characters grow keenly aware of the paths they didn’t take in their lives. Some wonder why the alternate existences they imagine feel as real as their current lives.
The crucial place where all the characters’ lives intersect is the Hotel Caiette, “a glass-and-cedar palace” in the village where Vincent grew up, where the lure is “a five-star experience in a place where your cell phone doesn’t work.”
Vincent, six years after her mother’s death, works as a bartender there, while Paul, on the rebound, is the night houseman. Late one night, a hooded figure acid-etches ominous words — “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” — on the lobby’s plate-glass window. The meaning and intent of those words are a mystery waiting to be solved over the complex peregrinations of the book.
Of more immediate worry to the Hotel Caiette staff is that the hotel’s owner, a financial wizard named Jonathan Alkaitis, will see the graffiti. Mandel uses flash-forwarding to dry and devastating effect as she introduces Jonathan: “He was generically well dressed, tanned in the manner of people who spend time in tropical settings in the wintertime, reasonably but not spectacularly fit, unremarkable in every way. Nothing about him, in other words, suggested that he would die in prison.”
Jonathan, it turns out, is the perpetrator of an international Ponzi scheme. The investors whom he swindles initially think their first encounters with him were coincidence and later come to see them as “a trap.” Vincent, with no savings to lose, sees Jonathan’s interest in her as a chance to do “something other than bartending in a place other than here.”
How hard, she wonders, would it be to feign a relationship with him? As a veteran of the service industry, she is, after all, “accustomed to performing.”
Jonathan’s admiration of Vincent is almost as calculating. “She sees what a given situation requires,” he tells one friend, “and she adapts herself accordingly.”
It isn’t long, however, before life in Jonathan’s “country of money” has Vincent picturing all the other paths her life might have taken.
“None of these scenarios,” she reflects, “seemed less real than the life she’d landed in, so much so that she was struck sometimes by a truly unsettling sense that there were other versions of her life being lived without her, other Vincents engaged in different events.”
Vincent isn’t the only character who experiences the “creeping sense of unreality” at the core of this fascinating novel. Mandel is ingenious at evoking how deceptions take hold. As a duped investor reflects, a signature flaw of the human species is that “we will risk almost anything to avoid looking stupid.”
One repeated line in the novel — “It’s possible to both know and not know something” — seems to apply not just to the obfuscations surrounding Jonathan’s Ponzi scheme, but to the doubts all the central characters have on where they stand in their own lives.
Mandel is a marvelous writer, whether she’s describing a family photograph as “an artifact of a civilization that had recently ended” or evoking the apparitions that haunt more than one character. But the keenest pleasure of “The Glass Hotel” is simply in the magic with which it immerses you in the calm, disorienting way that Mandel and her stubborn, enigmatic heroine see the world.
“The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel, Knopf, $26.95