Be pa­tient for re­ward of ‘Glass Ho­tel’

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Bar­bara Van­Den­burgh

Emily St. John Mandel’s last novel, 2014’s rap­tur­ously re­ceived “Sta­tion Eleven, ”had one hell of an el­e­va­tor pitch: What does the world look like af­ter it’s been rav­aged by a pan­demic and civ­i­liza­tion has col­lapsed? (If you have a strong con­sti­tu­tion and a dark sense of hu­mor, it’s well worth a re­visit now that we’re in the midst of a coro­n­avirus pan­demic.)

Her new novel, “The Glass Ho­tel” (Knopf, 320 pp., ★★★☆), isn’t as delectably sum­ma­riz­able, not least be­cause an ac­cu­rate el­e­va­tor pitch would spoil the act of dis­cov­ery for the reader. The story is a mix of seem­ingly, con­fus­ingly dis­parate el­e­ments: There’s a Bernie Mad­off-es­que Ponzi scheme and a charm­ing in­vest­ment banker no­body wants to sus­pect; a mys­te­ri­ous ho­tel ac­ces­si­ble only by boat in the wilds of Bri­tish Columbia; an ex­plo­ration of the fi­nan­cially cra­ter­ing and com­plex busi­ness of con­tainer ship­ping; and a strangely cap­ti­vat­ing art project built on a base of stolen home videos.

But first, there’s a wo­man plum­met­ing into the ocean.

“Be­gin at the end,” the book opens in 2018, with a wo­man named Vin­cent fly­ing over the rail­ing of a storm-wracked ship at sea, her mind reeling through time as her body tum­bles into the cold wa­ters be­low. Who is she? What sent her over the edge? Does she sur­vive?

Set­tle in and don’t get im­pa­tient; that is the end, af­ter all, and it takes a while to build to it. Sud­denly, we’re in a ther­apy ses­sion for a man named Paul – Vin­cent’s half-brother, it turns out, a re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict re­flect­ing on the late 1990s and how, in the mass hys­te­ria of the Y2K scare, his ac­tions led to an­other man’s death by over­dose. It’s one of a hand­ful of mis­takes that will haunt Paul through­out his life.

Then it’s 2005 at the se­cluded Ho­tel Cai­ette, the lux­u­ri­ous glass-and-cedar palace ac­ces­si­ble only by boat where both Vin­cent and Paul work, and where both are shaken by dis­turb­ing words graf­fi­tied in drip­ping white acid marker on one of the win­dows: “Why don’t you swal­low bro­ken glass.” Who wrote the mes­sage? For whom was it in­tended? Why such de­mented speci­ficity? It’s a fate­ful night for the sib­lings: Paul quits his job and flees, and Vin­cent meets her fate in wealthy, wi­d­owed in­vest­ment banker Jonathan Alkaitis. He’s in the mar­ket for a tro­phy wife.

Vin­cent tries not to ask too many questions about Alkaitis’ wealth, even of her­self. She has en­tered the “king­dom of money,” a sep­a­rate coun­try with its own bor­ders and rules where a prac­ticed ig­no­rance is all that’s re­quired to en­joy its spoils. Does such ig­no­rance in­oc­u­late us from ac­count­abil­ity? How re­spon­si­ble are we for the dam­age done? And when the ceil­ing col­lapses, how many times can we emerge from the wreck­age and start anew?

Th­ese are lofty moral and so­cial med­i­ta­tions which, while re­ward­ing, can feel un­teth­ered. “The Glass Ho­tel” un­folds in a maze of nested nar­ra­tives out of chrono­log­i­cal or­der, re­veal­ing its closely held se­crets on its own terms. The shift­ing nar­ra­tive voices can make it dif­fi­cult to emo­tion­ally con­nect with any one char­ac­ter, even Vin­cent, whose plum­met shad­ows the novel with an im­pend­ing sense of doom as in­evitable as the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, which will boot so many from the king­dom of money.

It re­quires an act of faith to trust that Mandel will find a way to mean­ing­fully con­nect th­ese threads. She’s earned that trust; have faith it will be re­warded.

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