In the third chapter of “The Glass Hotel,” an investment tycoon, a shipping executive, a wealthy art collector, a bartender, and the bartender’s brother (a would-be-musician and supposedly recovering addict) meet at a remote luxury hotel on the wild British Columbia coast. Meanwhile, in the first two chapters, someone has fallen off a ship, an accidental murder has been committed, a teenage girl has been suspended from school for an act of graffiti, a woman has disappeared, and the novel’s first ghost has been spotted.
But Emily St. John Mandel’s eerie, compelling follow-up to her award-winning bestseller “Station Eleven” is not your grandmother’s Agatha Christie murder mystery or haunted hotel ghost story. We know almost immediately that Jonathan Alkaitis, the investment tycoon, will end up in prison for financial crimes; that Leon Prevant, the shipping executive, will be one of his marks; that Vincent, the bartender, is the teenage girl who wrote “Sweep me up” in acid marker on a school window and the woman who falls off the ship and Alkaitis’s future paramour; and that Vincent’s brother Paul has used another acid marker to write “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?” on the glass wall of the Hotel Caiette. As these events and their implications unfold, the only real mystery in “The Glass Hotel” is whether its many ghosts are real — or figments of the anxious imaginations of its guilty, lost, and searching protagonists.
Mandel has established her career at the intersection of literary and genre fiction. Her first three novels are beautifully written, intricately plotted thrillers, but her popularity skyrocketed with “Station Eleven,” which melds post-apocalyptic dystopia and contemporary realism to explore how we might live if things go very wrong. “The Glass Hotel” similarly uses the loose frame of a ghost story to explore the social and emotional implications of our current gap between “the kingdom of money” and “the shadow country” of the poor, where greed and need collide and lost souls proliferate.
The novel’s ongoing sense of haunting extends well beyond its ghosts. The Hotel Caiette is “an improbable palace” whose “incongruity played a part in the enchantment”; its surrounding forests bear “shadows dense and freighted with menace.” Swimming in Alkaitis’s pool, Vincent first encounters Claire, his daughter, “staring at her through the steam like a goddamned apparition.” The narrative bounces about in time, madly foreshadows — “Nothing about him, in other words, suggested he would die in prison” — and wraps its characters in their memories. Meanwhile, Alkaitis and his fellow inmates “indulge in daydreams of a parallel version of events — a counterlife, if you will,” that can seem as real as their prison walls.
In Victorian sensation novels, which are named for the physical sensations experienced by their readers (I gasped out loud 200 pages after Paul’s graffiti, when another character asks, “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?”), what seem like supernatural events turn out to be real-life manifestations of the sensational secrets and scandals that fester within proper Victorian society. Likewise, the ghosts in “The Glass Hotel” are directly connected to its secrets and scandals, which mirror those of our time: addiction, abandonment, suicide, lies, and crime, especially Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme. Mandel meticulously depicts Alkaitis and Vincent’s life of misbegotten wealth, the collapse of his scheme (modeled after Bernie Madoff’s), and the aftermath for all involved, with criminals and victims alike thrust from “the kingdom of money” to “the shadow country.” But if people can slip so easily — and frighteningly — back and forth between rich and poor, if they can simultaneously inhabit past and present, reality and counterlife, why, the novel suggests, shouldn’t there be ghosts, slipping back and forth as well between the lands of the living and the dead?
Like all Mandel’s novels, “The Glass Hotel” is flawlessly constructed. From Vincent and Paul’s twinned acid marker graffiti to the formal and linguistic repetitions in its first and last chapters, the novel’s events and characters echo each other and recur with impeccable precision. Two thirds of the way through the book, I wondered when Annika — a beautiful musician who exists largely to entrance (and connect) Paul and Lenny Xavier, Alkaitis’s major investor — would reappear; 60 pages later, there she was. Is there something a little overdetermined in the neatness of these coincidences, encounters, and reencounters? Perhaps, but this is literary fiction, not real life, and that is part of its pleasure.
Still, the real-life implications of Mandel’s recent fictions are never far away. Reading “The Glass Hotel” as the coronavirus spreads across America, it is impossible not to think about the pandemic in “Station Eleven,” especially when Leon Prevant and Miranda Carroll, the previous book’s shipping executives, reappear, planning their “ghost fleet.” Meanwhile, the collapse of Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme amid the 2008 financial crisis and its ensuing chaos cannot help but evoke our current lying leaders, bouncing stock market, and anxious state. But where “Station Eleven” works hard to give us hope, “The Glass Hotel” declares the world to be as bleak as it is beautiful, just like this novel.
THE GLASS HOTEL
By Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 320 pp, $26.95
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.”