Emily St. John Mandel insists she’s no seer. The recent suggestions that her novels Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel are prescient stoke her unease. Still, as coronavirus rages and stock markets crash, Mandel, who appreciates the readership and is sheltered at home in Brooklyn, wishes she wasn’t the literary figurehead of this fraught new moment.
Set in the wake of a global flu pandemic, Station Eleven brought the Comox-born author wide acclaim, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award and a place on the National Book Award shortlist. In addition to accolades, the 2014 novel was a commercial success, with 1.5 million copies sold and a forthcoming series on HBO Max.
Not making light of current events, “the history of humanity is a history of pandemics. It’s something that happens to us every so often,” Mandel says today, during a phone call with the Straight. “I don’t feel like I predicted anything. But there has been a lot of strange attention in that way.
“With The Glass Hotel, I really thought I was writing historical fiction,” she continues, referring to her just-released fifth novel. “It’s about the 2008-2009 economic collapse. That’s a weird parallel that I really wouldn’t have seen coming.”
Skilled at drawing clever protagonists and midnight atmospheres, Mandel opens this latest book with a woman, Vincent, plunging off the deck of a container ship, and then skips back through time to chart her trajectory from wayward youth to bartender to trophy “wife” and beyond. This central plot introduces a diverse cast, reeling from a shuttered Ponzi scheme led by Vincent’s pseudo-husband, Jonathan Alkaitis, a New York financier who owns the eponymous structure, the Hotel Caiette.
Prior to Station Eleven, her fourth novel, Mandel wrote neo-noirs. The Glass Hotel was a chance to broach white-collar crime and look at the dynamics of a vast, nefarious enterprise. While the multibillion-dollar deception perpetrated by Bernie Madoff provided creative fuel, the characters, she emphasizes, are imaginary. (“I would hate for somebody who had invested with Madoff to think it’s a book about Madoff or Madoff’s real investors, because it’s really not.”)
Mandel was also interested in writing a ghost story. This grew from an idea about an imprisoned Jonathan dreaming of “the counterlife”, a phrase describing speculative outcomes, and developed in revisions. More than literal phantoms appear on the page. “What if your life is haunted by the ghosts of the lives you didn’t live? That became an organizing principle of the book. I wanted every section of the book to have some kind of ghostliness,” Mandel says, “or some kind of way of being haunted.”
In multiple threads, reflecting the intricacies of shared and separate pasts, characters ponder alternate realities. Vincent, a former Hotel Caiette employee, wonders what would’ve happened if she’d never connected with Jonathan at the five-star property, near her childhood home on Vancouver Island.
Installed at this point among New York’s social elite, she considers that “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,” Mandel writes, “other Vincents engaged in different events”.
The recurring theme of border-crossing, bolstered by sections featuring Leon Prevant, a shipping executive from Station Eleven who, in this iteration, sees his fortunes shift, complemented Mandel’s fascination with the far-reaching yet seemingly invisible transport industry. Geographic limits aside, she wanted to delve into “what comes up for a lot of characters, which is the borderland—the hinterlands—between being a morally upright person and not, the way you might drift unexpectedly over that line.…The transit across social classes,” Mandel says, “that’s a line that’s interesting to think and write about. And also, I think, no less profound than transiting between countries—even more so, in some cases.”
Mandel’s books have always been smart, eloquent, and terrifically paced. Cunning and distance are prized commodities in her fictional universe. The Glass Hotel, which Mandel is adapting for television with Vancouver-based Lark Productions, subtly explores what produces and perpetuates mass delusion, and how guilt and fate impact memories and identities.
The focus on reinvention that informs her work, she remarks, stems in part from leaving Denman Island, where she was raised, to study contemporary dance decades ago in Toronto. “It was just such a revelation to be able to literally fly from one life into the next. I felt like I left one life at the Vancouver airport and landed in a different one in Toronto, and it was never the same after that.
“There was something about that that just captured me—this idea that you can become, if not a completely different person, a person living a completely different life, which can feel like the same thing,” Mandel says. “It is something that I find myself returning to again and again.”