The Banality of the Country of Money: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel is a ghost story, but not in the ways you might expect. Our protagonist Vincent has lived many lives: as a wounded young girl, a trophy wife, a woman lost at sea, a ghost. She lives them in fragments told in 5-minute video clips and in the observations of those around her, always one step removed. Her faux husband, the charismatic and wealthy Jonathan Alkaitis, has his share of lives as well—from the splendor of the country of money, to the counterlife he imagines for himself from the confines of prison after his decades-long ponzi scheme collapses. They flicker in and out of each other’s lives—out of Vincent’s brother Paul’s life, out of Jonathan’s friend Olivia’s, out of countless outraged investors’—utterly unknowable.

Mandel’s last award-winning novel Station Eleven is making the rounds again due to its striking relevance to our current epidemic. It might not be the right moment to revisit a novel about viral apocalypse, but Mandel’s piercing eye for precarity and possibility is still a welcome one. The Glass Hotel is just as timely as its predecessor, with its flickering images of financial collapse, the opioid epidemic, and the genuinely different spheres of existence that different classes inhabit. A novel of disaster, guilt, and ephemeral human connection, it is a ghost story for a post-2008 world.

Glass Hotel flirts with genre in much the same way as its predecessor, though this time with the supernatural rather than the apocalyptic. Its ghosts come in multiple forms: some literal—a man recently overdosed on the dance floor, countless duped by Jonathan hovering in his prison cell— and some metaphorical—money that doesn’t actually exist, living people disappearing from one another’s lives or from the lens of a surveillance camera, people living on the margins of society. In its purest form, the novel deals with “[knowing] something and not [knowing] something at the same time,” and that “something” is at times an idea and at times a human being. Mandel’s ability to connect these different forms of haunting is a magic act in and of itself. She never directly states “money is a ghost” or “we sometimes fail to see one another.” Instead, she haunts through tone, through emotional resonance, and through missed connections and fleeting moments of insight. I’d be hard-pressed to describe this novel as genre fiction, but the relationship it weaves between the supernatural and the very real realm of human emotion is a fascinating one.

Besides ghosting, the strongest recurring theme and image of Glass Hotel is that of the “country of money.” Vincent, who moves between different classes as well as different jobs, lives, and locations, describes her time as Jonathan’s trophy wife as living in a totally different country with its own rules, citizens, and border controls. Her descriptions of wealth and leisure are powerful and awful in their banality—it’s not so much that her new status makes her cruel, but that it separates her entirely from the lives of others. Don’t come to this book if you’re looking for a Wolf of Wall Street or Gatsby-style morality tale of excess and corruption (a trope which more often than not ends up idolizing its subjects as much as criticizing them)—instead we see wealth as something much more subtle and insidious: a life of stability, the ability to exist outside of real time, the choice not to see or experience. Vincent and others throughout the novel lose their citizenship, float instead to the shadow country of poverty and transience, “a territory without comfort or room for error.” And it is this shift in perspective, this true instability of economic status, that ultimately connects disparate characters and storylines. We have all bought into a myth, a specter, a ghost of money—and we are all affected when it disappears.

If all of this sounds terribly bleak, you’re not wrong. Station Eleven was, at its core, a hopeful story about art and human ingenuity. Glass Hotel is structurally similar and even references the other book obliquely (perhaps as in-universe continuity, perhaps as an alternate timeline), but its discussion of artistic expression makes it more different from Station Eleven than even its variant supernatural and financial trappings. Rather than proclaiming that “survival is insufficient” or that we must create to make meaning, even through disaster, Glass Hotel portrays art through a series of aborted attempts: struggling poets, dead painters, plagiarizing musicians try and fail and fail again. These artist characters are part of a larger struggle that is inherent to the artistic impulse, the struggle as both creator and audience to truly see or know another person. There’s a poignancy and beauty in trying to see the world authentically, when so many others turn a purposeful blind eye. But our perspectives are limited, and artists and audiences alike must grapple with that. While art is not as primary to the novel as it is in Station Eleven, the ways that Glass Hotel’s characters grapple with self-expression and being “seen” makes it an interesting counterpoint to the other novel.

Describing The Glass Hotel is a tricky thing without elaborating on these themes and recurring images. A plot summary—if one is even possible—or even a character analysis does not do the project justice. Told in fragments and dissonant perspectives, the novel exists in the connections between each chapter rather than in the events of the chapters themselves. It is bizarre and literary and utterly haunting. In an era of social upheaval and economic precarity, it’s a novel that lays bare the grief at the heart of our disconnection.

The Glass Hotel is available from Knopf.

Em Nordling reads, writes, and manages research in Louisville, KY.

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