An Alternate Reality

Reviewed by Wendy Roy

A quarter of the way into Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, a character muses about her obsession with what might have happened. She imagines an alternate reality in which “the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been swiftly contained; an alternate world where the Georgia flu blossomed into an unstoppable pandemic and civilization collapsed” (67). In this direct reference to her 2014 pandemic novel Station Eleven, Mandel informs the savvy reader that this new novel will provide an alternate reality to that one. In this reality, the Georgia flu that provided the devastating backdrop to Station Eleven did not provoke a global apocalypse. Instead, the world as we know it survived, to allow the fallout from another kind of crisis to overtake it. This time the crisis is financial in the form of a Ponzi scheme that has taken in and destroyed at least one character from Station Eleven and many new characters as well.

Alternate reality is a key concept in some speculative fiction; indeed, it is referenced in five central pages in Station Eleven when two characters imagine a parallel universe in which the pandemic did not happen. Even outside speculative or apocalyptic genres, the concept of alternate realities provides a rich avenue for imagination. In the case of The Glass Hotel, it allows for a fictional discussion of the ethical and moral implications of life choices. As with Station Eleven and Mandel’s other novels, The Glass Hotel is structured around the interlocking experiences of a number of characters, at different points in time, who sometimes narrate their own experiences. Each of the characters of The Glass Hotel goes through multiple discrete stages in their lives, a form of alternate realities in which they recreate themselves. The novel begins and ends in the first-person voice of Vincent Smith at her own potential death and then moves into the lives of others around her, including her older half-brother, Paul, her lover, Jonathan Alkaitis, and the people whose lives he interacts with and then destroys as he builds a Ponzi scheme and watches it unravel.

Vincent has remade herself several times, from a grieving thirteen-year-old whose mother drowned off Vancouver Island; to a bartender in an isolated luxury hotel (the glass hotel of the novel’s title) on an inaccessible part of that same island; to the trophy common-law wife of a financier in New York. So, too, have others, in the process grievously hurting her and those around them. Paul destroys the life of a musician he finds beautiful by giving her band member tainted Ecstasy, and he betrays his sister in multiple ways because of his drug habit and his own selfishness. Jonathan does not consider himself an evil man, although he has launched a financial scam (modelled on the real-life Ponzi scheme by Bernard Madoff) that promises sky-high returns but never actually invests the money collected. The novel also deals with minor characters who are confronting their own selfishness and avarice, such as investors Olivia Collins and Leon Prevant (the latter a minor player in Station Eleven) and employees who know about and facilitate the scheme. None of them think of themselves as bad people; they are only greedy or self-deluded, accepting exorbitant rates of return or extra pay to write false statements and shred documents.

The concept of an alternate reality becomes more evident in several chapters titled “The Counterlife.” In these, Jonathan, imprisoned for 170 years for his role in the financial scheme, imagines “a parallel version of events—a counterlife, if you will” (115). In this life, he still becomes rich by defrauding people, but he escapes punishment by fleeing abroad before he can be arrested. But his imagined escape turns into a nightmare in part because the counterlife starts to take over and become more real to him than his life in prison. Jonathan has “a creeping sense of unreality, a sense of collapsing borders, reality seeping into the counterlife and the counterlife seeping into memory” (141). He wonders whether other men in prison have counterlives, as he sees them “gazing into the distance” (140). When he asks one of his fellow prisoners, “You ever think about alternate universes?” the response is “Who doesn’t?” (140-41).

The characters in The Glass Hotel are haunted by their corrupt behaviours, or at least by being caught at them. Is it murder if you unknowingly give someone contaminated Ecstasy? What are the ethical implications of agreeing to be a trophy wife to someone you do not love? Is it really wrong to give people absurdly high rates of return, without ever investing their money, because surely they should know that something fraudulent is going on? Should Leon, who lives in a “shadow country” (247) now that he has lost his life savings, suppress information in the investigation of a death if it will mean he gets more consulting jobs?

As Leon’s presence suggests, the ghosts of Station Eleven and indeed earlier novels by Mandel haunt The Glass Hotel. Miranda, a major character who died in Station Eleven, has a minor role in this novel. Jonathan, meanwhile, was first introduced in Mandel’s 2012 The Lola Quartet, where his disgrace plays a part in the downfall of a journalist who makes up a quotation from a victim of the Ponzi scheme. More conventional ghosts eventually appear in The Glass Hotel, at first the apparent figments of Jonathan’s imagination as he slips into a dementia related to his counterlife. Eventually, however, readers realize that ghosts have been there all along and are indeed real, appearing to a number of the characters. Since I have difficulty believing in ghosts, this was a distracting feature of the novel; the narrative would have been more powerful had the ghosts remained in the realm of tortured imagination. In addition, the open-endedness that was so effective in Station Eleven does not work in this novel, perhaps because the fragmentation of the narrative means that it is often difficult to understand whose story is important, and needs to be resolved. Some other writing decisions raise more questions than they answer: Who is the unidentified speaker for “The Office Chorus,” the staff members who enabled the fraud? Why is one chapter set in the future (2029) for no other apparent reason than to allow a character to fulfill a prediction by telling others about her very minor role in the scheme? Despite these potential flaws, though, as with her other novels, Mandel’s prose is compelling, exploring important concepts related to human existence.

The titular hotel in this novel is made of glass, looking out on a dense forest. Mandel’s novel provokes reflection about the idea that we all live in glass hotels. Once people look inside, they can see the apparently private deeds that affect others in fundamental ways. The glass is temporarily keeping the wilderness of bad decisions and questionable behaviours at bay, but the consequences are out there, within easy reach. And these metaphoric glass hotels are breakable: when they tumble down, illusions are shattered and the flying glass can cause profound damage.

This review “An Alternate Reality” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 183-185.

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