A Prismatic View of Emily St. John Mandel’s Novels – Chicago Review of Books


The Glass Hotel is the title of her fifth novel, and the key to entering novelist Emily St. John Mandel’s world; the glass hotel first appears in her second novel, The Singer’s Gun

The office tower where Anton works is reflected in the glass hotel adjacent: “He tried to watch every reflected window at once, but the angle was such that he could really only make out people on the two floors above and below him.” 

Emily St. John Mandel’s storytelling stretches to see into as many windows as possible. Peer closely: characters move between windows, themes reflect and refract.

One character in her second novel is unexpectedly moved by Kirkegaarde’s last words—“Sweep me up”—and another, in her fifth novel, graffities the phrase on a school window. A business executive, introduced in her fourth novel offers a hotel guest, in her fifth, some contract work. A journalist in her third novel is assigned a news story about the character who owns the eponymous glass hotel. 

But even though the concept of a glass hotel is a reflection, the 2020 version is no New York City skyscraper. The Caiette is on the opposite coast and isolated, so that the glass allows guests to imagine they inhabit the wilderness. (Here is a hint of the author’s fascination with borders and liminal spaces.) One of these guests is Leon Prevant, a reflection of the role he played in the author’s best-known work, Station Eleven. There, he was only a memory—who appeared in flash-backs—one of the casualties of that novel’s pandemic. 

Another character in The Glass Hotel distracts herself from the news by imagining alternate realities, timelines with “no Iraq War” in which the “terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been swiftly contained.” In Station Eleven, the Georgian flu devastated humanity and Leon Prevant died; in The Glass Hotel, Leon Prevant lives, but he imagines himself a resident of a “shadow country that in his previous life he’d only dimly perceived.” 

Throughout all five novels, readers can contemplate “doubleness” and “knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad.” These are not novels weighted by philosophical debates, however, but stories buoyed by serious concerns; Mandel is as dedicated to plotting as she is to characterization. 

The plots circle around ordinary events that demand extraordinary resilience. It begins with 2009’s Last Night in Montreal, in which a mother has a “daughter who disappeared…the kind of catastrophe that marks a person forever afterward.” Here, another character has scars on her arms and her boyfriend resists asking about an encounter with “a great deal of broken glass.” The boyfriend is Eli, who studies “small languages on the edge of extinction” and who, in turn, searches for Lilia, who has been “disappearing for so long that she didn’t know how to stay.” 

In Mandel’s novels, family ties are often fractured. Parents struggle—yet, still strive—to provide their children with a sense of security. Grief is a powerful force, but not the only kind of loss. Disappointments and betrayals strain relationships, and memories can either haunt or sustain. Some characters exist in a state of perpetual longing, while others create a solitary belonging, through pursuit of an artistic (often musical) or professional passion.

The Singer’s Gun, published in 2010, opens with Anton’s sudden and unexplained demotion at work; he is relocated to a lower floor—the view of the glass hotel is obstructed by air vents—and he now overlooks a gravel rooftop. His receptionist disappears and the nature of his work changes substantially. The disruptions in his office life are echoed at home, where he and his fiancée prepare to marry after she dramatically canceled their previously planned wedding. And, eventually, there’s a singer, a gun, and people make “certain shortcuts,” step outside “normal channels.” It’s all very ordinary—until it’s not.

Characters in these novels regularly survey their surroundings. Anton’s viewscape soon shifts to a setting far from NYC, whereas Lilia, in the first novel, overlooks a “landscape of Brooklyn rooftops.” Other characters overlook “an aggressively landscaped backyard,” “an indigo sea at twilight,” “the City, the bridges and islands,” and “a few ships far below in the steel-gray water, no visible land.” In Station Eleven’s dystopia, such perspectives exist only in memory: “No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows.” 

In 2011’s The Lola Quartet, Gavin stands by the New York Star newsroom’s window, “looking down at the teeming masses of humanity forty-three stories below” and wonders “how many times had his father been among those dark specks on the sidewalk.” This is another way of trying to see into all the windows. But from a distance, damage can be mitigated; up close, characters are at risk. Here, a young mother seeks a certain kind of freedom and intends to commit a somewhat dishonorable act in pursuit of it, but she unwittingly commits an undeniably dishonorable one. Another disappearing act occurs, as well as other unexpected career-changes: transformations abound.

Nominated for several literary awards, 2014’s Station Eleven is now being adapted by Patrick Somerville into a 10 episode television series directed by Hiro Murai. This dystopian tale opens with a production of King Lear that is disrupted by a medical emergency on stage. One character, who steps forward to assist, is introduced to readers by the name he adopted in order to establish distance from the unpalatable work he did previously; such a shift in identity would have been a difficult secret to keep, before the world’s systems collapse after a pandemic. The ways in which we choose to change, and how we are forced to change: these are essential and gripping questions. 

The delicate braiding of many different characters’ perspectives is most tantalizing in Station Eleven, although Mandel employs the technique consistently. Characters are linked in unexpected directions, within and between books. It’s a joy to pull at the threads and follow their knots and loops. This interweaving is displayed prominently in The Glass Hotel, which begins with a small-scale disaster in 2018 but circles back to the 1990s, and introduces several characters whose lives are reflected and refracted throughout the narrative. 

The shipping systems that fascinate hotel guest Leon Prevant are as complex as the ties between storylines in Mandel’s fiction. Grief haunts characters, recalling the line that Anton repeats: “We are not alone, this side of death.” Another kind of reflection, this line comes from  an unpublished novel by Douglas Anthony Cooper. The corrupt investor whom Gavin was assigned to research in The Lola Quartet is, here, paying the bills for a character who imagines herself living in a “kingdom of money,” while another character whose fortunes were devastated in that scheme is inhabiting “the edge of an abyss.” 

The windows frame compromises and catastrophes in Emily St. John Mandel’s fiction. And despite all the glass, there is more conflict than clarity. This makes for compulsively readable novels, carefully crafted page-turners. Don’t just say you’ll visit someday. Call ahead. Make a reservation. Check out the view from The Glass Hotel. Enjoy your stay.

The Glass Hotel
By Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf Publishing Group
Published March 24


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