Every Day Above Ground (mallorys_camera) wrote,
Every Day Above Ground

The Glass Hotel

I’ve never run across a novel structured quite like The Glass Hotel before. It’s an incredibly ambitious structure, and Emily St. John Mandel doesn’t entirely pull it off. Nonetheless, I’m blown away with admiration at the sheer scope of imagination behind such a task because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a novelist attempt it.

A few poets have! But, I mean, we’re talking about 300 pages here.

The book is about… reflections, those things that exist in the interstices between what is real and what is not real.

And the entire book is written in a series of parallel chapters on either side of a its central section, The Office Chorus, exactly as though the author was holding her imagined events up to a mirror.

That same effect as when you suddenly catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror in a department store changing room that’s positioned in exactly the right way to catch the mirror behind it so that you suddenly see yourself reflected endlessly, an infinity growing smaller and smaller as you—but is that you?— recede into eternity.

How do I know that this effect was intentional?


Mandel actually references this specific optical illusion somewhere in Station Eleven.


This structure actually makes the book a bit difficult to read.

In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure I was up to putting in the effort to finish it for those first 100 pages are so.

Mandel is what I would call a cerebral stylist.

Meaning that there is a sort of gloss to her prose, which gives everything she’s writing about a kind of affectless uniformity.

Very few tempo changes in Mandel’s sentences. They all have a kind of ripples-on-the-pond effect that makes each page just a wee bit less easy to turn.

Plus, for the first 100 pages or so, the novel’s plot seems so random!

Characters are thrown into the mix, and the characters all have backstories that should make them interesting except the characters themselves somehow are not interesting.

And then, there is Vincent, the novel’s protagonist. (Note to Mandel: Nobody really needs an As-you-know-Bob, to figure out that your Vincent was named for Edna St. Vincent Millay!) She’s supposed to be fascinating enough to immediately snag the interest of a roving billionaire looking for a fake trophy wife, but, in point of fact, she’s not fascinating, she’s entirely amorphous.

This would work if there were no chapters written in Vincent’s own point of view! In real life, as everyone knows, the most fascinating people of all are those people who are so entirely blank so that one can project one’s own hopes and fears and desperate struggles to love on to them.

Except that there are multiple chapters written from Vincent’s point of view, and while interesting plot twists do happen to the character, the character herself brings very little to them, the sagittal slices of her consciousness as revealed to the all-omniscient reader are just not that terribly engaging.

(This is a weakness I also noticed in Station Eleven: The central character, Kristen, is really flat, and it was this flatness, along with Station Eleven’s monumentally weak denouement that kept me from giving the novel unconditional love—though I did love it.)


From a conventional point of view, the most gripping part of the novel is its centerpiece, a section titled The Office Chorus.

And here the pace picks up. Here, the novel transforms into an actual page-turner. The section describes the collapse of a Ponzi scheme and the lives of five characters, bit players, Bernie Madoff’s own little team of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns, although in The Glass Hotel, Bernie Madoff is named Jonathan Alkaitis.

Mandel’s signature crisscrossing style is fast and furious here, and it works. The vignettes are brilliant, particularly the woman who drags her children out for a “fun” day in New York City—so that they’ll have something to “always remember” when she’s in prison—that involves cold and confusion and panic for the children as their mother becomes more and more manic.

The Office Chorus section is bracing.

So immediately involving that when the action slows down again on the other side of it, I scratched my head and thought, “Huh! This must be a deliberate choice by the author.”

And read the rest of the book eagerly.


The novel has a lot of ghosts, a lot of characters who live on two planes, one real and one… spectral. The title is good insofar as a glass hotel is a reflective surface, and ghosts and spectral planes are species of reflection. But the hotel itself is not central to the plot in any essential way. I’m not sure whether this is because Mandel got tired of an editing process, which might have involved scattering foreshadowed references like breadcrumbs through text she had already written, or whether there was another title she actually liked better that her publisher dissuaded her from using.

In fact, I would dearly love to read one of those Paris Review-style interviews with Mandel. MS Word or yellow legal pads? I would ask. Do you write forward or backward? And do you have a mirror over your writing desk? Crossposted from Dreamwidth.
Tags: #from, #the, #this, books, emily st john mandel, the glass hotel, writing
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