Emily St. John Mandel traces a financial crisis in “The Glass House”


Maybe Emily St. John Mandel’s next book should be about happy, healthy, wealthy, wise people. In his best-selling 2014 novel “station eleventhe world has been devastated by a global pandemic; six years later, she dates “The Glass Hotel”, which triggers a massive financial crisis. And now we have both.

“I don’t see anything particularly prescient in ‘station elevenMandel protested in a mid-March phone call from New York as the coronavirus began to spread across America. Still, she couldn’t help but add a disclaimer: “I wouldn’t recommend reading ‘Station Eleven’ in the midst of a pandemic.”

Readers seem to feel differently; it’s currently #3 on Amazon’s Dystopian Fiction Bestsellers. She credits some of that success to the upcoming HBO Max Serieswhich began production in Chicago this winter.

Mandel hadn’t intended the book, which focuses on tiny communities that coalesce 20 years after most of humanity disappeared, to be predictive. The Canadian native, who now lives in New York, had turned to history in the elaboration of his futuristic fiction. “I was particularly focused on the smallpox epidemic in the 1790s in North America, with explorers writing about its impact on Indigenous communities around where I grew up,” she said.

“Something that has become clear to me is that pandemics are inevitable. This is in no way to downplay the horror or tragedy. But it’s just something that happens once in a while. It has happened before and it will happen again. »

The same goes for financial crises. In “The Glass Hotel”, a key character was inspired by Bernie Madoffwhose Ponzi scheme was discovered when his investors tried to cash in during the financial crisis of 2008. We can only imagine (or maybe Mandel can) what will come out of our current economic disaster.

“The Glass Hotel” begins well before the 2008 crisis and far from the towers of finance. A girl named Vincent is growing up on a remote Canadian island when her mother disappears, leaving her to be carried away by relatives. His older half-brother, Paul, does not help him; he is an addict who cannot see beyond his own needs.

After Paul (probably accidentally) gives a musician (sort of rival) a bad dose of a drug that kills him, the half-siblings reunite in Vancouver. Then, haunted by his own actions, Paul walks away, while Vincent stays and becomes the emotional core of the book. She is joined by a kaleidoscopic array of characters tied to the upcoming collapse of the Ponzi scheme. Among them, Jonathan Alkaitis, an unscrupulous financier; its staff, who speak in a collective plural us”; and Leon Prevant, a licensed maritime executive.

This surname might ring a bell to shut down “Station Eleven” readers. Prevant was there too, briefly – a senior colleague of Miranda Carroll. Both characters were brought down by the deadly Georgia flu from the first book; their resurrection in “The Glass Hotel” stems in part from Mandel’s desire to tell their stories in a different way.

It was an act of character reinvention, a move towards a multibook multiverse. “Which is doable because it’s fiction,” Mandel said. “I have this desire for cohesion. There’s something satisfying about bringing people back from previous works.

The characters of “The Glass Hotel” often wonder about paths not taken, untold stories. Vincent imagines being stuck working as a bartender or not becoming Alkaitis’ girlfriend. “None of these scenarios seemed less real than the life she had landed in, so much so that she was at times struck with a truly unsettling feeling that there were other versions of her life lived without her, of other Vincents engaged in different events,” she thinks. Then Mandel winks at “Station Eleven” fans: “Imagine an alternate reality…where the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia wasn’t quickly brought under control. The fictions are linked, but the trajectories of the characters are different, the stories contingent and divergent.

In some ways, their mental exercises mirror the work of a novelist: imagining a handful of stories, acting them out, deciding the best one, while perhaps keeping the counter-narratives in one’s head. When I suggested this to Mandel, however, she brushed it off. She is not interested in discussing, as I had proposed to her, “the fiction project”. Unlike many contemporary novelists, she did not study writing at university; she did not obtain an MFA; she never had a writing mentor. Instead, she went to contemporary dance school and entered the working world as an administrative assistant.

A book cover for Emily St. John Mandel's

“It would have been really easy not to come to New York and write,” she said. “I imagine this parallel life where I was a dancer in Toronto. It’s probably more plausible than the life I’m living now. Life, that is to say that of an author whose last book sold more than a million copies. “It’s an idea that really interests me. Crucial decisions that send your life in one direction instead of another.

The big decision for Vincent is to allow Alkaitis to pick her up while she’s a bartender at an isolated upscale hotel. Vincent shrugs off his working-class background like a faded hoodie and quickly adapts to his luxurious surroundings, becoming his companion and wife. They have a few years of phenomenal wealth and elite, albeit boring, dinners, parties, and yacht rides, floating through what she calls “the realm of money.”

Mandel does not objectify Vincent or make her conceited, but it is clear that beauty is her passport. Vincent makes a friend, Mirella, another young woman with an older and much richer boyfriend. Both are intelligent and adaptable, flexible and dependent. “I’m fascinated by trophy wives as a phenomenon,” Mandel said. Relationships are inherently transactional. “You can call it prostitution, if it’s a case like Vincent or Mirella, but should you see it in a negative light?”

mandel worked on a television pilot for the story with the help of a veteran screenwriter Semi Chellas. Although many novelists have turned to television, for Mandel it is a refreshing detour; she learns the demands of a different medium that rarely treats trophy wives with the tenderness of her novel. “What I encounter when I talk about this is class misunderstanding – this idea that we have to understand why Vincent would run away with Jonathan. And to me, having grown up in a very working-class environment, it seems to me, well, why wouldn’t she?

It seems obvious to Mandel that you would choose to reinvent yourself. “It’s this opportunity for adventure, for a whole new life. She feels so stuck. Then this guy comes in with this golden ticket out of the life she’s in.

Of course, the golden ticket has an expiration date. As Alkaitis’ scheme unfolds, its bankrupt investors are clamoring for their money back. One commits suicide. Another finds himself homeless. A third work in a seasonal warehouse to survive. They were all also looking for a golden ticket. Alkaitis promised impossible returns and, like Madoff, blamed its investors for their greed. Vincent survives because she is ready to go into exile of this silver kingdom.

“With this book, I wanted to write about money, which you don’t often come across in fiction,” Mandel says. “Not as often as we maybe should, given how central money is to all of our lives.”

With the economy currently in freefall, Mandel’s fixation on money seems, once again, prophetic. Maybe she’s in tune with the times. Or as a novelist, maybe she’s really good at imagining a variety of possible futures – or imagining futures we once thought were unimaginable.

Kellogg is the former book editor of the Los Angeles Times. It can be found online @paperhaus.

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