The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel,
HarperCollins 2020 (320 pages).
Reviewed by Mark Sampson
What is a Ponzi scheme, at its essence? We usually describe it as a vast, elaborate act of financial fraud based on the premise of stealing from Peter to pay Paul, ad infinitum. A fraudster, usually masquerading as an investment expert, accepts money from his victims to “invest” in what turns out to be a fictitious fund with fictitious (and often too-good-to-be-true) returns. If an investor wants to withdraw some of those earnings from the fake fund, the fraudster uses money from others investors to fulfill that request. Provided these withdrawals happen only sporadically and one at a time, the ruse can continue. But should many investors want to pull their money out all at once – which often happens during an economic downturn – the fund’s lack of real investment growth will be exposed and the scheme collapses. The most famous recent example was Bernie Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme, which came to light in the wake of the global economic collapse of 2008.
But more profoundly, a Ponzi scheme is really about creating false realities. It peddles in what we might call a financial paracosm: an imaginary world where investors think they are worth far more than they actually are, where they live their lives unaware that they have much less financial – and psychological – security than they think they do. Victims of a Ponzi scheme often develop long-term issues with trust as a result of the fraud. It’s not just about the lost money. It’s about having something you thought was real being exposed as utterly fake.
Emily St. John Mandel, in her brilliant and exuberantly written new novel, The Glass Hotel, explores both the literal and philosophical dimensions of a Ponzi scheme. Her antagonist, Jonathan Alkaitis, and the trajectory of his crimes, mirrors almost exactly that of Bernie Madoff’s. But it is through the eyes of those both close to and on the periphery of Jonathan’s life where we get the best view into what his deceptions have wrought. The biggest window comes via our protagonist, Vincent, who is Jonathan’s unapologetic “trophy wife.” She marries him after they meet while she’s working as a bartender in a hotel he owns in a remote part of British Columbia. The marital contract they strike up transforms Vincent’s world, inviting her into the kingdom of unfathomable wealth.
Indeed, the novel describes the ultra-rich as being citizens of their own separate country, a concept that could have been lifted straight from Chrystia Freeland’s excellent nonfiction work, Plutocrats. But for many in The Glass Hotel – including Vincent, the victims of Jonathan’s scheme, and his employees – that country is a lie, its landscapes tenuous and illusionary. When Jonathan’s house of cards falls, it falls hard. Soon, everyone is trying to pick up the pieces of what has been lost, which often involves conjuring other realities, making up other paracosms to inhabit. Even Jonathan himself does this while in prison. He calls it the counterlife, an alternate reality he daydreams about where he managed to escape punishment for his crimes. These daydreams come to him as fiercely as hallucinations, a “creeping sense of unreality, a sense of collapsing borders, reality seeping into the counterlife and the counterlife seeping into memory.”
Of course, the Ponzi scheme itself is only one part of what makes this novel so interesting. There is a wide web-work of secondary characters and various subplots that help flesh out the scale of The Glass Hotel, including one involving the appearance of ghosts. Mandel proves herself a virtuoso of research, of characterization, of empathy. She writes convincingly about a number of disparate topics in this book: everything from how money markets work and Toronto’s fin de siècle music scene, to life in an isolated BC community and what it’s like working on a long-haul container ship doing laps around the Atlantic. Her ability to inhabit multiple fictive worlds and perspectives in a single story is astounding.
This isn’t to say that The Glass Hotel doesn’t have flaws. Mandel relies on a few creaky coincidences to help buttress some plot points, including one that involves a former investor of Jonathan’s becoming the investigator into Vincent’s disappearance after she takes a job as a cook on a container ship following the Ponzi scheme’s collapses. Also, Jonathan’s crimes echo a bit too closely Madoff’s real-life one in terms of their scale, execution, timing and punishment. It may have been better to fictionalize his scheme a bit more.
But these small blemishes don’t really take away from the bigger picture. Mandel has written an invigorating tale about people whose worlds have collapsed around them, and what they must do to build those worlds back up again.
Emily St. John Mandel was born in British Columbia and lives in New York with her husband and daughter. Her first book, published in 2009, was Last Night in Montreal (excerpt here). Her novel, Station 11 (2014), a New York Times bestseller, is now being hailed as pandemic prescient.
Mark Sampson’s new novel, All the Animals on Earth, will be published by Buckrider Books (an imprint of Wolsak & Wynn) in September 2020. He is the author of five other books, including The Slip (Dundurn, 2017), Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn, 2014). Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto. Sampson was interviewed by Canadian Writers Abroad in 2014. He in turn interviewed Jamie Popowitch and Ron Schafrick.
- Adam Gopnik’s essay on his daughter’s paracosm, “Bumping Into Mr Ravioli,” in The New Yorker, September 23, 2002.
- Isaac Fitzgerald in conversation with Emily St. John Mandel for Greenlight Bookstore.
- Review of The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel in the National Post.
- Review of Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel in The Globe and Mail.
- Michael Hingston reviews Mark Sampson’s The Slip in Quill and Quire.