Sunday, June 21, 2020

Review of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2015 Station Eleven was a hit. Science fiction by definition but more humanist in aim than the majority of work that fits under that umbrella, Mandel earned herself a number of fans on the “other side”, despite that her first three novels didn’t ping the “squids in space” radar. Wisely taking a five-year break to let the hype cool down, Mandel returns in 2020 with the novel The Glass Hotel. While likewise technically genre (the reader can discover how), again, Mandel has focused her energy on the people who populate her story, and the layers that make them human.

Character study in the era of corporate fraud, The Glass Hotel is set primarily in the early Oughts, and looks at a few branches of relationships—family, friends, spouses, etc. living through a major, Enron-esque corporate scandal. Foremost on the screen, but only by a few frames, is a young woman named Vincent. Raised in atypical circumstances on a remote British Columbia island accessible to mainland only by boat, she reels, seemingly throughout her life, from the unexpected death of her mother when she was a young teen. Children to a broken marriage, her brother Paul relieves his existential angst through narcotics.

A fragmented narrative, The Glass Hotel shifts in time. But not restlessly, distractingly. Chunks of story are opened, filled, and resolved before Mandel shifts viewpoint to another character/moment in time, giving the novel the flavor of being gently tossed on the waves of time, not churned and frothed on them. Mandel likewise effectively uses the approach to build tension and suspense in various aspects of the characters’ lives. Some events are revealed in the first few chapters, leaving the reader to wonder how things shake out—the shaking out something Mandel does slowly, steadily, and satisfactorily. Some events are kept to hand—teased and hinted at, allowing suspense and tension to build from the opposite direction, again, something that Mandel handles very nicely. Based on these choices and the proper execution thereof, the novel feels full bodied, and gratifyingly complete upon turning the last page.

But there seems an issue with The Glass Hotel. Specifically, this is an identity crisis. It doesn’t seem the novel knows what it wants to be. On one hand, the novel would want to be literary, in this case to use characters to zoom in on an aspect or aspects of the human condition that present people grappling with the various exigencies of existence. To a good degree, The Glass Hotel accomplishes this. The reader feels as though they intimately know Vincent, Jonathan, and Paul by the end of the book, and feel their plights for better and worse, virtues and vices. But at the same time, there are also a handful of plot moments that are so coincidental as to put the reader in the frame of mind reading a mainstream/bestseller-ish novel. I won’t spoil those moments here, except to say they detract from the very strong sense of realism Mandel otherwise builds.

Compounding the identity crisis is that thematic focus seems too spread. On one hand it’s clear Mandel would seek to humanize (and yet still villainize) the CEOs and other corporate leaders who fail to take accountability for their actions when the lives of hundreds if not thousands are negatively impacted by their illegal, immoral behavior. And nicely, subtly this is accomplished through realistic character portrayals that extend into the lives of Jonatan’s subordinates who helped him accomplish his unethical scheme. Mandel does not wield a hammer of good vs evil or us vs them; Jonathan and the other guilty parties exist in the full spectrum of relatable, even likable humanity. However, almost independent of this thematic focus is the personal plight of Vincent. The character readers get to know most intimately, her life ebbs and flows through the corporate scandal, but likewise ebbs and flows before and after it. In other words, it is just a phase of life that informs her character and decisions rather than defines them. While his sphere is not as large as Vincent’s, Paul’s story likewise exists independent of the scandal. And there the two faces of the novel exist, with minimal connection between them: realistically portrayed corporate scandal, including the delicate and appropriately handled “demonization” of it, and the character studies of people whose lives are partially shaped by the scandal, but only partially, their personal demons spawning from several other areas of life.

But don’t let this disconnection and cheaper moments of plot put you off from reading The Glass Hotel. Mandel has, theoretically, spent five years or more writing this novel, and it’s clear a huge amount of love and care went into crafting the fragmented time structure and the character of Vincent. If the reader doesn’t come to understand the delicate undercurrents of her soul by the end of the novel and feel something, they are dead. The manner in which Jonathan and his fellow conspirators are portrayed is likewise commendable. While in casual conversation we describe the perpetrators of the Enron scandal as heartless, soulless bastards who should have a special place in hell (and rightfully so), they remain living, breathing humans, subject to the same tides of situation and whim that we are. Despite their entirely selfish behavior, they remain human.

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