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Emily St. John Mandel’s Ghost World

The Station Eleven author returns with another haunting novel.

Courtesy of Sarah Shatz

Emily St. John Mandel has a knack for explosive openings. Her last novel, Station Eleven, begins during a production of King Lear, in the long moment it takes the lead actor to stutter, fall backward, and drop dead. An audience member and EMT-in-training is already leaping his way on to the stage, kicking an usher as he goes.

Mandel also uses a mad moment of falling to begin The Glass Hotel, her fifth and latest novel, with a woman “plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness” and into the water below, “breath gone with the shock.” This initial burst of energy sets The Glass Hotel in motion, while that opening image remains, unchanging, like a flag or a religious icon—a portrait of a woman in perpetual free fall.

Mandel is known for essays like 2016’s “The Gone Girl With the Dragon on the Train,” her wry investigation into the twenty-first century’s proliferation of novels with the word “girl” in their title, and her four previous novels. The first three—Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet—are all tightly plotted pieces of literary noir, the kind of books whose stories hum away like engines.

Station Eleven is looser and more brilliant. The novel was nominated for a National Book Award and is now broadly acknowledged as an eerie oracle of the coronavirus crisis. Via a series of tightly interwoven timelines, Station Eleven explores events before, during, and after a civilization-ending flu pandemic that kills billions and destroys earth’s electricity and communications of all kinds. On the other side of “apocalypse,” Mandel shows us a troupe of traveling musicians performing Shakespeare and symphonies across the land. In its composition, Mandel experiments more with timing and structure than in her previous books, mixing slower storylines about relationships and art in amid the tense action. It’s as if she explodes time to look at its moving parts, like a clockmaker who wants to know how the whole thing works.

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel.
Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95.

Following on that principle of dismantling and rearranging time, reality runs on a variety of different speeds in The Glass Hotel. A woman named Vincent is its heroine. Not that she does anything particularly heroic: Named for the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who also went by “Vincent,” she is a startlingly lucid and apparently very beautiful young woman (her face is never described, only its implied effects) whose mother drowned when she was 13 in a mysterious canoeing incident.

Traumatized by her mother’s death, Vincent is disturbed by the “goddamn haunted inlet” of water her mother drowned in. Water remains a strong theme throughout The Glass Hotel, equally a force of unsympathetic chaos and beauty. In her spare time, Vincent films the surface of the ocean for hours.

Having dropped out of high school, Vincent gets a job as a bartender at the hotel of the novel’s title, a gorgeous spectacle of a building in blond wood and glass walls called the Caiette. There she attracts the notice of an extremely wealthy older man named Jonathan Alkaitis, who turns out to own the place and in time becomes her boyfriend. He keeps her in unspeakable luxury, and Vincent transcends into what she calls “the Kingdom of the Rich.” She reaches a peak of nihilistic alienation, shopping for expensive shoes and bored of it.

This portrait of a creative but haunted soul transforms into a banking drama when Vincent’s boyfriend’s fortune turns out to be the fruit of an enormous Ponzi scheme. The explosion reverberates backward and forward throughout the novel’s many timelines, affecting each character along serpentine threads of interconnection.

Though Vincent is the center, stories spiral outward through the lives of her acquaintances. We meet Walter, the manager of the Caiette, who loves its glass the way other people love their families but goes broke after a fatal meeting with Alkaitis in its bar. We meet Faisal, a gorgeous young millionaire who commits suicide after also losing his money. The same force that swept Vincent up into the Kingdom of the Rich now expels others from it, as one by one Alkaitis’s betrayal shatters their lives.

Alkaitis is a fairly straightforward avatar of Bernie Madoff. The Glass Hotel finds its originality where Mandel blends her fable of financial collapse with ghost stories. Sometimes these ghosts are literal: A dead character from some half-forgotten chapter will suddenly appear in another character’s life. Other ghosts are figurative: Though Alkaitis goes to jail rather than dying, the specter of his crime follows his victims wherever they go. It’s as if money itself has a ghost, in the form of the chill it leaves behind when it’s gone.

For example, Leon Prevant, a character Mandel fans will remember from Station Eleven, reappears here as one of the unlucky souls who have invested with Alkaitis. He ends up living in his R.V. Now that he and his wife have lost their money, they have become “citizens of a shadow country that in his previous life he’d only dimly perceived, a country located at the edge of an abyss.” They grow half-invisible, half-real, somewhere near the edge of becoming ghosts themselves.

Mandel once said that she has struggled to talk about genre, since her books skirt sci-fi and crime fiction but do not belong to either. I, too, struggle to describe what kind of fiction this is. There’s a slight lethargy to The Glass Hotel, which comes from its odd rhythm: that explosive first scene gives way to a pacing that ebbs and flows. In moving away from plots with conventional rhythm, toward a pulsating, push-pull fascination with crisis situations and disintegrating systems, Mandel has taken her novel-writing practice somewhere both traditional (the polyphonic psychological novel) and quite experimental (I had to read The Glass Hotel twice to figure out where two major characters had come from—it can be difficult to keep up).

Leon Prevant is not the only character to reappear in The Glass Hotel from Station Eleven, and in an enthusiastic review for The Atlantic, Ruth Franklin argued that this cross-referencing shows that Mandel is constructing a sort of multiverse that demonstrates the power of fiction to imagine simultaneous realities. Given Mandel’s interest in contingency and coincidence, perhaps we could add further that all novels are realizations of adjacent, just-out-of-reach realities. The only people free to travel between them are ghosts.