fri 27/11/2020

Emily St John Mandel: The Glass Hotel review - a Ponzi scheme and its ghostly repercussions | reviews, news & interviews

Emily St John Mandel: The Glass Hotel review - a Ponzi scheme and its ghostly repercussions

Emily St John Mandel: The Glass Hotel review - a Ponzi scheme and its ghostly repercussions

A scintillating follow-up from the author of Station Eleven

Emily St John Mandel: shadow lives and parallel universesSarah Shatz

Vast wealth and equally vast fraud are part of the plot in The Glass Hotel, Emily St John Mandel’s irresistible fifth novel, but much stranger things are at play here – ghosts, parallel universes, the threads that connect us. Vincent, an impoverished bartender in a remote hotel on Vancouver Island, leaves her job to enter a new life in the “kingdom of money” with Jonathan Alkaitis, an immensely rich, much older New York financier.

Vast wealth and equally vast fraud are part of the plot in The Glass Hotel, Emily St John Mandel’s irresistible fifth novel, but much stranger things are at play here – ghosts, parallel universes, the threads that connect us. Vincent, an impoverished bartender in a remote hotel on Vancouver Island, leaves her job to enter a new life in the “kingdom of money” with Jonathan Alkaitis, an immensely rich, much older New York financier. But she has an unsettling sense of other versions of her life being lived without her. “None of these scenarios seemed less real than the life she’d landed in.”

In her previous bestselling Station Eleven of 2014, about a global flu pandemic (sales rose steeply during lockdown) more lethal, swift and civilisation-zapping than Covid-19 but still remarkably pertinent in its details, St John Mandel explored similar themes.

The Glass Hotel, just as compelling as Station Eleven, is about a 2008 Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, much less apocalyptic than a pandemic, but the suddenness of Alkaitis’s fall is comparable to the onset of the Georgia flu in Station Eleven, when it was “possible to comprehend the scope of the outbreak” but not to understand what it meant.

We know early on in the non-linear narrative that Alkaitis, and many of the other characters – the investors, his staff - are doomed, and the sense of foreboding is very powerful. And it’s vastly seductive, too, to enter Vincent’s new life of shopping and luxury (every day she gets the train into Grand Central station from Greenwich, Connecticut and wanders around, spending thousands on clothes – though it’s not the stuff she can buy that matters, she realises, it’s the “previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money”. She tells herself, sounding lukewarm, that she does genuinely like Alkaitis). And you shudder when you realise that Olivia, an artist with a connection to Alkaitis through his dead brother, is going to invest the modest amount of money – the only money she has - that she’s made from selling a painting.

In both novels, characters flit in and out, connected to each other by long-standing, sometimes random threads that converge and separate (it’s easy to lose track occasionally with such a large cast, but Mandel is skilled at multiple time-lines and points of view and bringing a character back into focus). When Alkaitis is in prison – his sentence, at 170 years, is even longer than Madoff’s – he slips in and out of fantasies – soon they’re more real than the here and now - of a “counterlife” in which he manages to escape arrest. But he’s plagued by hallucinations and the ghosts of his investors (it’s how he knows they’re dead).

Other characters were first glimpsed in Station Eleven. Leon Prevant is a young shipping executive in the earlier novel (Mandel is fascinated by the infrastructure of international shipping and its “secret world” – parts of Station Eleven, echoed in The Glass Hotel, were inspired by a report on a ghost fleet of container ships in Malaysia, stranded after the 2008 economic collapse).

glassIn The Glass Hotel, Leon, still in shipping, is one of Alkaitis’s victims, drawn into conversation with him in the bar – “in what seemed at the time like a coincidental manner and seemed later like a trap” - at Hotel Caiette, the luxury wilderness hotel of the title, a “glass and cedar palace”, owned by Alkaitis, where Vincent is the bartender.

Alkaitis, with his unerring predatory instinct (only one character in the novel calls him out for the fraudster that he is), homes in on Leon’s fascination with shipping routes, each ship “a point of light, converging into rivers of electric brilliance over the night oceans”. Although Leon doesn’t understand Alkaitis’s investment strategy when it’s explained to him, the “steadiness in that column of numbers” appeals to his longing for order in the universe and he gives Alkaitis his retirement savings to invest, against the advice of his boring accountant.

And of course the returns speak for themselves until the collapse of the Ponzi, when Leon and his wife Marie are forced to abandon their house, travel around the US in an RV and take on shift work. The change in circumstances is wonderfully described: they become part of the “shadow country”, a frightening place that in his other life he’d only dimly perceived.

Mandel is brilliant at describing the way it’s possible “to know and not know something,” as Oskar, one of Alkaitis’s senior employees, puts it when giving his testimony in court. The events leading up to Alkaitis’s arrest are recounted by an office chorus, bringing to mind Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to The End, and it’s a masterful portrayal of collective guilt and uncertainty as to when each employee knew a line had been crossed.

“We all know what we do here,” says Alkaitis as he sits them down to a final meeting about the “arrangement” in the 17th floor offices in the Gradia Building (in Station Eleven a doomed Air Gradia jet held quarantined passengers who never disembarked), but some refuse to admit that they did know. “You don’t have to be an entirely terrible person, we told ourselves later, to turn a blind eye to certain things.” And calling the authorities, after all, meant destroying colleagues’ lives. No one exists in isolation, Mandel reminds us in this lyrical novel, and the ghosts of our pasts return to us again and again.

 The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel (Picador, £14.99)

Read more book reviews on theartsdesk

The sense of foreboding is very powerful. And it’s vastly seductive, too, to enter Vincent’s new life of shopping and luxury

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