Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Glass Hotel: The Spaces Between

Emily St. John Mandel's novels are nothing if not prescient and timely. Her last novel, Station Eleven, one of my favorite novels of recent memory, is about life after a global pandemic. But more specifically, it's about how art makes us human.  

St. John Mandel's new novel titled The Glass Hotel is just as important for understanding our current moment. This story is about the spaces between — interstitial, liminal spaces — and how these spaces inform our human experiences. Now, as we're in a pandemic-created liminal space between the old normal and the new, this novel can offer important context. 

The story is about a woman named Vincent who works at a luxury hotel on a remote Canadian island. The hotel is owned by a rich guy named Jonathan Alkaitis, who uses the hotel to recruit investors for what we soon learn through jumps back and forth in time, is actually a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. 

Frankly, though, summarizing this plot is difficult, because of the time- and geography-jumps — and really the plot isn't the point. I mean, it's not hard to follow, but other than saying "it's about a Ponzi scheme and a hotel," you'll benefit anyway from knowing less about the details.

So, about those spaces between: Just about every aspect of this novel deals with some sort of liminal space — a hotel, a Ponzi scheme, the shipping industry, and many more. But one of the more fascinating parts of this novel, as it was in Station Eleven, is looking at art and inspiration, and the difference between true creativity and "borrowing" or building on someone else's inspiration. This isn't the main point of this novel this time, but to me, it was the most interesting one. 

It's also fascinating how St. John Mandel ties all these disparate elements over time, geography, and ostensible subject matter (what would international shipping have to do with avant-garde art outside of this novel?) into a really sharp, cohesive whole. As the saying goes, in the hands of a lesser novelist, this could've been a beautiful mess. But it's not. It's short, sweet, smart, and really entertaining. Fans of Station Eleven will no doubt find plenty to like here. I sure did. 

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