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Emily St. John Mandel’s prophetic imagination

Emily St. John Mandel, author of “The Glass Hotel.”
Emily St. John Mandel, author of “The Glass Hotel.”
(Sarah Shatz)

Emily St. John Mandel’s last novel, “Station Eleven,” envisioned a pandemic. “The Glass Hotel” plumbs financial doom.

Maybe Emily St. John Mandel’s next book should be about people who are happy, healthy, wealthy and wise. In her hit 2014 novel “Station Eleven,” the world was devastated by a global pandemic; six years later she’s out with “The Glass Hotel,” which turns on a massive financial crisis. And now we’ve got both.

“I don’t see anything particularly prescient in ‘Station Eleven,’” Mandel protested in mid-March, on a phone call from New York, as the coronavirus began sweeping across America. Yet she couldn’t help tacking on a warning: “I would not recommend reading ‘Station Eleven’ in the middle of a pandemic.”

Readers seem to feel differently; it’s currently No. 3 among Amazon’s dystopian fiction bestsellers. She attributes some of that success to the upcoming HBO Max series, which started production in Chicago this winter.

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

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“Something that became clear to me is pandemics are an inevitability. This is not to minimize the horror or the tragedy in any way. But this is just something that happens every so often. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.”

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(Knopf)

The same goes for financial crises. In “The Glass Hotel,” a key character was inspired by Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme was uncovered when his investors tried to cash out during the 2008 financial crisis. We can only imagine (or maybe Mandel can) what will crawl out from under our current economic catastrophe.

“The Glass Hotel” starts well before the 2008 downturn and far away 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 shuttled among relatives. Her older half-brother, Paul, fails to help; he’s an addict who can’t see beyond his own needs.

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After Paul (probably accidentally) gives a (sort of rival) musician a bad dose of a drug that kills him, the half-siblings reunite in Vancouver. Then, haunted by his own actions, Paul spins off, while Vincent stays and becomes the book’s emotional core. She is joined by a kaleidoscopic array of characters connected with the Ponzi scheme’s forthcoming collapse. Among them are Jonathan Alkaitis, an unscrupulous financier; his staff, who speak in one collective plural we”; and Leon Prevant, a laid-off shipping executive.

That last name might ring a bell to close readers of “Station Eleven.” Prevant was there too, briefly — a senior colleague of Miranda Carroll. Both characters were felled by the first book’s lethal Georgia Flu; their resurrection in “The Glass Hotel” stems partly from Mandel’s desire to tell their stories in a different way.

It was an act of character reinvention, a gesture at 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 in “The Glass Hotel” often wonder about paths not taken, stories untold. Vincent imagines being stuck working as a bartender or not becoming Alkaitis’ girlfriend. “None of these scenarios seemed less real than the life she’d landed in, so much so that she was struck sometimes by a truly unsettling sense that there were other versions of her life being lived without her, other Vincents engaged in different events,” she thinks. Then Mandel winks to “Station Eleven” fans: “Imagining an alternate reality … where the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been swiftly contained.” The fictions are connected, but the characters’ trajectories are different, the stories contingent and divergent.

In some ways, their mental exercises reflect the work of a novelist: To imagine a handful of story lines, play them out, decide on the best one, while perhaps keeping the counternarratives playing in one’s head. When I suggested this to Mandel, though, she brushed it off. She is not interested in discussing, as I’d posed it to her, “the project of fiction.” Unlike many contemporary novelists, she didn’t study writing in college; she didn’t get an MFA; she never had a writing mentor. Instead, she went to school for contemporary dance and entered the working world as an administrative assistant.

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(Vintage)

“It would have been really easy to not come to New York and not 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.” The life, that is, of an author whose last book sold more than 1 million copies. “It’s an idea that really interests me. The pivotal 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 bartending at a remote high-end hotel. Vincent throws off her working-class background like a faded hoodie and swiftly adapts to his luxurious milieu, becoming his companion and consort. They have a few years of phenomenal wealth and elite, if boring, dinners and parties and yacht rides, floating through what she calls “the kingdom of money.”

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Mandel doesn’t objectify Vincent nor make her vain, but it’s clear that beauty is her passport. Vincent makes one friend, Mirella, another young woman with an older, much richer boyfriend. Both are intelligent and adaptable, pliable and dependent. “I’m fascinated by trophy wives as a phenomenon,” Mandel said. The relationships are inherently transactional. “You can call it prostitution, if it’s a case like Vincent or Mirella, but does it have to be seen in a negative light?”

Mandel has been working on a television pilot for the story with the help of veteran screenwriter Semi Chellas. Although many novelists have jumped to television, for Mandel it’s a refreshing detour; she’s learning the demands of a different medium that rarely treats trophy wives with the tenderness her novel does. “What I run into when I talk about this is class incomprehension — this idea that we need to understand why Vincent would run off with Jonathan. And to me, having grown up in a very working-class environment, it seems like, well, why wouldn’t she?”

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

Of course, the golden ticket has an expiration date. As Alkaitis’ scheme unravels, his bankrupted investors clamor to get their money back. One commits suicide. Another winds up homeless. A third takes seasonal warehouse work to survive. They were all looking for a golden ticket too. Alkaitis promised impossible returns and, like Madoff, blamed his investors for their greed. Vincent survives because she’s willing to walk away into exile from that moneyed kingdom.

“With this book I did want to write about money, Which is not something you encounter a lot in fiction,” Mandel says. “Not quite as often as maybe we should, given how central money is to all of our lives.”

With the economy currently in free-fall, Mandel’s fixation on money seems, again, prophetic. Perhaps she’s plugged into the zeitgeist. Or as a novelist, maybe she’s just really good at envisioning a variety of possible futures — or imagining futures we once considered unimaginable.

Kellogg is formerly books editor of the Los Angeles Times. She can be found online @paperhaus.


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