1018 Sweep us up, Emily

The Glass Hotel
by Emily St. John Mandel

Toronto: HarperCollins, 2020
$34.99 / 9781443455725

Reviewed by Jessica Poon

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Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel was one of five books shortlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize. See here for an interview with her by Trevor Corkum on 49thShelf.com, and for an interview on the Giller Prize website, see here. In 2010 and 2018, Mandel spoke on her home island at the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival — Ed.

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I can barely make a character enter a room without having paroxysms of self-doubt. Emily St. John Mandel, in The Glass Hotel, though, has seemingly no problem with multiple timelines, a plurality of settings, and myriad characters that are impressively fleshed out; it’s as if there’s no such thing as a minor character. For this Swiss army knife multifariousness alone, Mandel deserves accolades; however, Mandel is also manifestly able to tell a spell-binding story and creditably incorporate ghosts without inciting alarm bells of incredulity.

Before spoilers became outlandishly taboo, people were, at one point, able to maintain curiosity for how something happened, rather than becoming superficially fixated on merely learning what happened. In The Glass Hotel, it’s clear that the protagonist, Vincent, is dead. If you read the book flap or the first couple of pages, it’s not a spoiler in the traditional sense, but rather, suspense-building artillery for intrigue.

In a literary landscape densely populated with first-person narratives with visible resemblance to their authors (which, by the way, I like), Mandel’s writing feels both old-fashioned and contemporary in simultaneity. Her ability to inhabit a variously troubled mind — be it a disillusioned bartender in a transactional quasi-marriage; a drug-using, guilt-ridden man who eventually becomes a successful composer; a financier fallen from grace, estranged from his daughter in prison; a hotel manager with reclusive tendencies; or a coterie of colleagues in a Ponzi scheme who are otherwise completely ordinary, flawed people — feels like an effortless magic trick, a wildly impressive one. Cue the doves.

Emily St. John Mandel reading at Shakespeare and Company, New York, 2015. Mandel was born in Comox in 1979 and grew up on Denman Island

The beginning of The Glass Hotel is emdash-heavy and, intentionally, I believe, not immediately understandable, but like a Tarantino movie, the beginning acts as a time-release capsule of “Oh, I see” as you progress. Red herrings become apparent and insights are calculatingly delayed; the delight is in the details, fermenting like sublimely salty cauliflower. An inscrutable beginning takes a certain confidence in an author, i.e., to believe the audience will stay with you long enough to understand, and, of course, an author’s ability to let events unspool in a complex yet decipherable manner. In this case, Mandel’s confidence is warranted.

Her protagonist, Vincent — named after Edna St. Vincent Millay — is “reasonably intelligent” but relatively directionless, a bartender whose ambivalence to postsecondary education is entirely reasonable, given just how many bartenders with degrees she has met. It is perhaps the most relatable part about Vincent. Once a blue-haired, angsty teenager with a fixation for this phrase: “sweep me up,” Vincent as an adult is beautiful, enigmatic, full of chameleonic charisma. This chameleonic charisma leads her to Jonathan Alkaitis, an obscenely wealthy man running a Ponzi scheme. Their marriage is a farcical illusion, the very epitome of a May-December romance; it is a transaction from the onset. There is no paperwork officially wedding them, but the illusory marriage is sufficiently convincing and creates the image of stability. Vincent performs wifely duties — with compartmentalized unease — and is reprieved from economic worries. Notably, she spends the bulk of her now luxuriously unemployed time — although, of course, pretending to be a wife is its own job not unlike bartending — reading newspapers, shopping, and swimming. I found Vincent’s lack of interest in reading materials beyond newspapers — after all, she was named after a poet — to be almost vapid, but I am not exactly impartial when it comes to the merits of reading. On the other hand, Vincent, like her half-brother Paul, does evince some artistic inclinations — she films “nothing” in five-minute intervals and is willing to take deadly risks to do so.

Paul is a moral coward, but one wrought empathetically. After offering drugs to a beautiful singer named Aanika in hopes of currying amorous favour with her, Aanika offers some of her bounty to her fellow band member, Charles. Shortly after, Charles dies on the dance floor and Paul, not wanting to be found culpable, flees to Vancouver. Paul’s moral cowardice recurs again and again, but he is written sympathetically and continues to be haunted by Charles’s ghost. Even when his career as a composer becomes surprisingly successful, Paul’s success hinges on betraying Vincent, but even that is portrayed as a skewed way of reconnecting with his half sister. Paul’s always found Vincent inscrutable, if well-adjusted, despite Vincent having more involuntary tragedy befall her life. Paul attracts blame, even when he doesn’t fully deserve it. Meanwhile, Jonathan Alkaitis, once he realizes the inevitability of prison, never once considers fleeing, perhaps the byproduct of having generally led a fortunate life of hedonism and luck.

Emily St. John Mandel at home in Brooklyn, 2020. Photo by Benjamin Norman, courtesy of Sixtysix
US edition, Random House, 2020

The Glass Hotel pleasantly reminded me of a YA novel called Alone at Ninety Foot by Katherine Holubitsky — a legitimately arresting work that does not, perhaps entirely warrant its YA designation insofar as it’s eminently readable for any adult, expertly tackling grief, female friendships, and the inherent awkwardness of stepmothers. Holubitsky’s protagonist, Pamela, grieves her mother’s suicide, as does Vincent. Does it defy common sense to practically live underwater when your own mother drowned? Or is it a sensible way of being closer to your mother for reasons one might not even process? Although morbid curiosity would satisfy Occam’s razor, I’m inclined to believe that Pamela and Vincent have more complex reasons for continuing to immerse themselves in water. Water could be matrilineal, an amniotic fluid substitute; what killed my mother only makes me stronger. It could also well be that their proclivities for water have nothing to do with their mothers; it is just a coincidence with an all too easy and therefore unnuanced interpretation of morbidity. In Alone at Ninety Foot, Pamela not only swims, but collects jars of water; her mother’s suicide is unambiguous. In The Glass Hotel, Vincent’s mother’s death is a matter of speculation: was it suicide, or was it an accident?

When ghosts are not hallucinations but largely written in earnest, it’s a dicey proposition entering genre fiction, or in Mandel’s hands, just another judicious accessory to her fiction. Although Mandel’s previous works have been classified as genre fiction — which she reasonably does not endorse because of the absence of futuristic technology in her novels — I’m inclined to think it does not particularly matter, insofar as Mandel is obviously talented and therefore, sufficiently literary to constitute literature. On the other hand, of course, why is contemporary science fiction automatically not literature? Ursula K. Le Guin, remember, is outrageously talented and would, on a talent scale, be a more than comfortable fit in literature. For an enterprise that ostensibly wants to be more inclusive, literature still suffers from a serious case of ivory tower bullshit. Mandel is talented. That is the most relevant thing.

UK edition, Pan Macmillan, 2020

As far as I’m concerned, Mandel could write a book entirely about ghosts and the paranormal (literally translated as “beside normal” or, more elegantly, normal-adjacent) and I would be riveted. As it is, she has written the opposite of a love story: a mystery, a ghost story, a study of financial disaster, and yes, she has written literature. Perhaps a new adjective is in order to describe fiction of this particular caliber: Mandelian (not to be confused with Mendelian genetics. By the way, St. John is her middle name, everyone).

When Vincent meets Claire, Alkaitis’s daughter with his “real” and now late wife, a woman equally scrofulous and therefore well-poised to be Alkaitis’s spouse, it is deliciously awkward. Although Vincent does not have an incinerating ardour for Alkaitis, she doesn’t dislike him, either, and she is curious about her predecessor in a way that seems nominally proprietary, if barely. The Glass Hotel does not subvert the evil stepmother trope the way Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi does, but employs the fairly conventional, stepmother-is-younger-than-daughter trope (it’s a trope for a reason). Having said that, Mandel capitalizes on the potentially humorous awkwardness with a deadpan glee that’s wicked fun:

She was in the pool when she first met Jonathan’s daughter, Claire. It was a cool evening in April, steam rising from the water. She’d known Claire was coming over that evening, but she hadn’t expected to surface and find a woman in a suit staring at her through the steam like a goddamned apparition, standing perfectly still with her hands clasped behind her back. Vincent gasped aloud, which in retrospect wasn’t endearing. Claire, who had obviously just come from the office, was a very corporate-looking woman in her late twenties.

            “You must be Vincent.” She picked up the folded towel that Vincent had left on a lawn chair and extended it in a get-out-of-the-pool way, so Vincent felt that she had no choice but to climb the ladder and accept the towel, which was irritating because she’d wanted to swim for longer.

            “You must be Claire.”

            Claire didn’t dignify this with a response. Vincent was wearing a fairly modest one-piece swimsuit but felt extremely naked as she towelled off.

            “Vincent’s an unusual name for a girl,” Claire said with a slight emphasis on girl that struck Vincent as uncalled for. I’m not that young, Vincent wanted to tell her, because at twenty-four she didn’t feel young at all, but Claire was possibly dangerous and Vincent hoped for peace, so she answered in the mildest tone possible.

            “My parents named me after a poet. Edna St. Vincent Millay.”

            Claire’s gaze flickered to the ring on Vincent’s finger. “Well, she said, “we can’t choose our parents, I suppose. What kind of work do they do?”

            “My parents?”

            “Yes.”

            “They’re dead.”

            Claire’s face softened a little. “I’m sorry to hear that.” They stood staring at one another for a beat or two, then Vincent reached for the bathrobe that she’d left on a deck chair, and Claire said, sounding more resigned than angry now, “Did you know you’re five years younger than me?”

            “We can’t choose our ages either,” Vincent said.

            “Ha.” (Not a laugh, just a spoken word: ha.) “Well, we’re all adults here. Just so you know, I find this situation absurd, but there’s no reason we can’t be cordial with one another” (pp. 59-60).

Claire is, perhaps, anomalously, the only character who is not given enough range; she seems almost like a caricature of bratty progeny. On the other hand, the behaviour of even adult children often really is like that.

One of the best characters in The Glass Hotel is Olivia, a painter whose assessment of her diminished allure in old age is despairingly realistic. It’s a damningly accurate portrait of women’s fates who, by dint of losing their looks, become invisible, forgettable, even barely corporeal.

“You won’t remember me,” she said to Jonathan when she called him, and immediately wished she’d said something different. The trouble with that line was that it had worked when she was young because when she was young she was beautiful, also fierce in a calculated manner that she’d believed to be attractive, which had lent a certain irony to the suggestion that anyone could have possibly forgotten her — Oh, you know, just another gorgeous magnetic fresh young talent with gallery representation — but lately she’d found that the line sometimes elicited a tactful silence, and she’d realized that often people did not, in fact, remember her. (Idea for a ghost story: a woman gets old and falls out of time and realizes that she’s become invisible) (p. 101).

It won’t be the last wry idea for a ghost story, either.

With old age comes not necessarily more wisdom, but more self-doubt in previously upheld convictions. Alkaitis regales Olivia in how he met Vincent; it’s the oldest story in the world: “I walked into the bar and saw her,” Alkaits said, “and I thought, She’s very pretty” (p. 104). Olivia interprets Alkaitis’s continued admiration for Vincent with real, unvoiced insight I found disturbingly convincing:

            “It’s interesting,” he said, “she’s got a very particular kind of gift.”

            “What’s that?”

            “She sees what a given situation requires, and she adapts herself accordingly.”

            “So she’s an actress?” The conversation was beginning to make Olivia a little uneasy. It seemed to her that Jonathan was describing a woman who’d dissolved into his life and become what he wanted. A disappearing act, essentially.

            “Not acting, exactly. More like a kind of pragmatism, driven by willpower. She decided to be a certain kind of person, and she achieved it.”

            “Interesting,” Olivia said, to be polite, although she couldn’t actually think of anything less interesting than a chameleon. Vincent was lovely but not, Olivia had decided, a serious person. Since her late teens she had been mentally dividing people into categories: either you’re a serious person, she’d long ago decided, or you’re not. A difficulty of her current life was that she was no longer sure which category she fell into (p. 105).

Olivia’s adolescent notion of a serious person is on the binary side. Still, if we accept that “frivolous” or “unserious” are appropriate antonyms of “serious,” then, it’s pretty safe to conclude Vincent is a serious person, if not career-driven. Vincent can be accurately described as both happy and melancholic in different parts of the novel. She does not lack self-awareness: “She’d started paying her own rent at seventeen. How had she become so dependent on another person? Of course the answer was depressingly obvious: she had slipped into dependency because dependency was easier” (p. 153). In other words, Vincent is resigned to being a trophy wife, a term too gauche for anyone in the book to actually use; unfortunately, Vincent and Olivia never really get the chance to realize each other’s innermost depths beyond their respective façades: Vincent as a beautiful empty shell, Olivia as a pitiful has-been milking her past.

I would have been appreciative of a scene with just Vincent and Olivia, but I always perked up when Olivia appeared on the page. The primary downside of being able to write so many good characters is that, inevitably, some characters are allocated more time on the pages than strictly necessary.

Emily St. John Mandel, 2020. Photo by Mike McGregor, courtesy of The Observer

One of the few friends Vincent cultivates in The Glass Hotel is Mirella, who, like Vincent, relies on a wealthy man; however, Mirella’s relationship is not transactional and serves an important contrast. When Alkaitis’s scheme is revealed, Vincent’s opulently comfortable life is replaced with a brief return to bartending, whereupon she encounters Mirella, who appears not to recognize her. There’s nothing like seeing an old friend spurning you with indifference to make you realize just how many societal rungs you’ve fallen down. The run-in with Mirella ultimately catalyzes Vincent’s escape from bartending and most of conventional society altogether. She explains herself to no one — she doesn’t have anyone to explain herself to.

As a vivacious but ultimately average-looking person with some occasionally undisguised misanthropy, I would be a server of dubious merit. Still, though, sensing my bubbly-ish exterior, sometimes people who meet me assume that when I mention working in a restaurant, I am a server. I want to say, some cooks are normal-looking women. Beautiful women, if they become cooks, are anomalies, yes; but they exist in greater numbers than you might imagine. A simpler memo: some cooks are women. Yes, really. We’re not all swashbuckling, promiscuous cocaine addicts with pockmarks and prison tattoos; very few of us are anything like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay. Are the archetypes completely invalid? No, but don’t trust what you see on reality TV competition shows. Vincent, a beautiful chameleon with bartending experience, finding happiness in something as purportedly blue-collar as cooking, makes counterintuitive sense that’s ultimately satisfying; the need to be chameleonic is no longer.

Efficiently fulfilling chits, an age-appropriate boyfriend, living on a ship, filming water, saving money to travel: as unlikely as it seems, Vincent is happy. Near the end, the novel reprises its emdash-heavy introduction, but instead of reproducing it verbatim, we really get to hear Vincent’s point of view for the first time, rather than a coyly omniscient third-person. The ending makes me long for more of Vincent’s point of view. It’s telling that, as a ghost, Vincent’s voice is louder than ever. My ears and eyes clamour for the lingering echoes.

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Jessica Poon

Jessica Poon is a writer, line cook, and pianist in Vancouver. She recently completed her bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of British Columbia. Visit her website here. Editor’s note: Jessica Poon has also reviewed books by Sheung-King, Eve LazarusAnnabel LyonMonika HibbsGrant Hayter-Menzies, and Wayson Choy for The Ormsby Review.

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