‘Glass Hotel’ review: Emily St. John Mandel examines devastation of a Ponzi scheme

“The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel.

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., 3 stars, ★★★ out of four), 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.

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“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 back on the late 1990s and how, in the mass hysteria of the Y2K scare, his actions lead to another man’s death by overdose, one of a handful of mistakes that will haunt Paul throughout his life.

Then it’s 2005 at the secluded Hotel Caiette, a 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, who’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?

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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 that 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 such trust; have faith it will be rewarded.

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