Reaching through the Haze of Death

The Glass Hotel | Emily St. John Mandel | Knopf

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“Begin at the end.”

These are the first words of Emily St. John Mandel’s newest novel, The Glass Hotel. A woman plummets into the roiling ocean from the deck of a storm-tossed ship as she remembers her life in flashes—and so the gossamer threads of this complex and delicate story begin to spin out. Alongside the drowning woman, the reader is immediately plunged into the narrative, knowing from the first words that it begins and ends with death at sea.

Published earlier this year, The Glass Hotel is the much anticipated follow up to the enormously popular Station Eleven (2014), which sold 1.5 million copies in thirty-two languages and in which interest has surged in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. After all, Station Eleven is a dystopian novel about an embattled acting troupe performing Shakespeare after a global pandemic kills 99% of the population. Pandemic literature is in its heyday, of course, but Station Eleven is a luminous novel regardless of present circumstances. But one great novel rarely begets another, and so readers have been eager to discover what else Mandel is capable of.

Although The Glass Hotel converges toward the drowning woman—a woman named Vincent (after Edna St. Vincent Millay)—this one weighty event does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, as the novel explores, the irrevocable moments that define human existence are dependent on seemingly fragile interactions between relationship, chance, and choice.

Troubled, lonely Vincent, a bartender at a remote luxury hotel, becomes enmeshed in the world of high finance (“the kingdom of money”) alongside a brilliant conman who runs a massive Ponzi scheme. Her addict brother, Paul, emerges and disappears throughout the story, along with a series of secondary characters, all of them adrift amidst the loneliness and fragmentation of modern life. In fact, the most noticeable thing about this novel is the profound isolation of every character. They bump into each other like moths seeking the light, but the only result is a new flight trajectory; they never connect. These bumbling collisions create the action of the novel. As the stakes become higher and the costs greater, the veneer of the kingdom of money cracks, and the novel explores how even the most solitary souls can be lost or saved through the guilt and grace of others. 

At times it seems as if Mandel succeeds too well in portraying characters so fragmented by modernity that their moral and physical displacement often drifts over the line from endearing to repugnant. Rather than feeling compassion and hope, readers may often wonder what there is to root for in a gold-digging courtesan, a serial addict, a decadent conman, and the overlapping circles of their victims and confederates. Is there any humanity in these characters beyond the sadness of their backstories? Mandel rarely provides a robust moral center to her characters, allowing them to plummet like shooting stars through the interstitial space of modern life. Whether this is the whole point is a matter of interpretation, but readers would be forgiven for abandoning a project that reveals the devastation of the modern wasteland without any real attempt to promote its renewal. 

But The Glass Hotel is more than a narrative about modern despair; it is a ghost story. Nearly all the characters in the novel encounter ghosts and some even become them. The haunted quality of the story reveals an attempt to attach to the murky mysteries of transcendence because all ghost stories are experiments in hope. After all, if there is an afterlife for lost souls, does that mean we all will have a second chance at redemption? Will we be able to forgive and be forgiven beyond the veil of the implacable grave? If modernity deprives us of the opportunity for meaningful connections, is it possible that death will restore rather than annihilate? Or is death just another uncrossable chasm for lonely souls? These are the questions at the heart of The Glass Hotel.

If every novel has an internal landscape—a geography, so to speak—this one is a spider’s web. Mandel throws out ethereal strands that appear to gleam for a moment in midair before drifting away, but along the way they somehow adhere to other threads, forming an ephemeral maze that converges in the center, shimmering in the light and trapping the blood of its victims. From the public collapse of an immense financial empire in New York to the middle-aged woman drowning alone in international waters, The Glass Hotel offers a beautiful and painful world in which men and women must reach through the haze of death to find each other.

Heidi White is managing editor of the FORMA, host of the FORMA Podcast, and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.

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