Fiction Friday | 'The Glass Hotel' by Emily St. John Mandel

08 May 2020 - 12:29
'The Glass Hotel' by Emily St. John Mandel.
'The Glass Hotel' by Emily St. John Mandel.
Image: Supplied

Vincent is the beautiful bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass-and cedar palace on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. New York financier Jonathan Alkaitis owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together.

That same day, a hooded figure scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass.’

Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core.

Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship.

Weaving together the lives of these characters, Emily St John Mandel's The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of remote British Columbia, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.

Extract:

2

I ALWAYS COME TO YOU
1994 and 1999

1

At the end of 1999, Paul was studying finance at the University of Toronto, which should have felt like triumph but everything was wrong. When he was younger, he’d assumed he’d major in musical composition, but he’d sold his keyboard during a bad period a couple years back and his mother was unwilling to entertain the idea of an impractical degree, for which after several expensive rounds of rehab he couldn’t really blame her, so he’d enrolled in finance classes on the theory that this represented a practical and impressively adultlike forward direction — Look at me, learning about markets and the movements of money! — but the one flaw in this brilliant plan was that he found the topic fatally uninteresting.

The century was ending and he had some complaints. He’d expected that at the very least he’d be able to slip into a decent social scene, but the problem with dropping out of the world is that the world moves on without you, and between the time spent on an all- consuming substance and the time spent working soul-crushing retail jobs while he tried not to think about the substance and the time spent in hospitals and rehab facilities, Paul was twenty-three years old and looked older.

In the first few weeks of school he went to parties, but he’d never been good at striking up conversations with strangers, and everyone just seemed so young to him. He did poorly on the midterms, so by late October he was spending all his time either in the library — reading, struggling to take an interest in finance, trying to turn it around — or in his room, while the city grew colder around him.

The room was a single, because one of the very few things he and his mother had agreed on was that it would be disastrous if Paul had a roommate and the roommate was into opioids, so he was almost always alone. The room was so small that he was claustrophobic unless he sat directly in front of the window.

His interactions with other people were few and superficial. There was a dark cloud of exams on the near horizon, but studying was hopeless. He kept trying to focus on probability theory and discrete - time martingales, but his thoughts kept sliding toward a piano composition that he knew he’d never finish, this very straightforward C-major situation except with little flights of destabilizing minor chords.

In early December he walked out of the library at the same time as Tim, who was in two of his classes and also preferred the last row of the lecture hall.

“You doing anything tonight?” Tim asked. It was the first time anyone had asked him anything in a while. “I was kind of hoping to find some live music somewhere.”

Paul hadn’t thought of this before he said it, but it seemed like the right direction for the evening. Tim brightened a little. Their one previous conversation had been about music.

“I wanted to check out this group called Baltica,” Tim said, “but I need to study for finals. You heard of them?”

“Finals? Yeah, I’m about to go down in flames.”

“No. Baltica.” Tim was blinking in a confused way.

Paul remembered something he’d noticed before, which was that Tim seemed not to understand humour. It was like talking to an anthropologist from another planet. Paul thought that this should have created some kind of opening for friendship, but he couldn’t imagine how that conversation would begin — I can’t help but notice that you’re as alienated as I am, can we compare notes? — and anyway Tim was already walking away into the dark autumn evening.

Paul picked up copies of the alternative weeklies from the newspaper boxes by the cafeteria and walked back to his room, where he put on Beethoven’s Fifth for company and then scanned the listings till he found Baltica, which was scheduled for a late gig at some venue he’d never heard of down at Queen and Spadina. When had he last gone out to hear live music?

Paul spiked his hair, unspiked it, changed his mind and spiked it again, tried on three shirts, and left the room before he could make any further changes, disgusted by his indecisiveness. The temperature was dropping, but there was something clarifying about the cold air, and exercise was a therapeutic recommendation that he’d been ignoring, so he decided to walk.

The club was in a basement under a goth clothing store, down a steep flight of stairs. He hung back on the sidewalk for a few minutes when he saw this, worried that perhaps it would turn out to be a goth club — everyone would laugh at his jeans and polo shirt — but the bouncer barely seemed to notice him and the crowd was only about 50 percent vampires.

Baltica was a trio: one guy with a bass guitar, another guy working an array of inscrutable electronics attached to a keyboard, and a girl with an electric violin. Whatever they were doing onstage sounded less like music than like some kind of malfunctioning radio, all weird bursts of static and disconnected notes, the kind of scattered ambient electronica that Paul, as a lifelong Beethoven fanatic, absolutely did not get, but the girl was beautiful so he didn’t mind it at all, if he wasn’t enjoying the music he could at least enjoy watching her.

The girl leaned into the microphone and sang, “I always come to you,” except there was an echo — the guy with the keyboard had pressed a foot pedal — so it was I always come to you, come to you, come to you — and it was frankly discordant, the voice with the keyboard notes and the bursts of static, but then the girl raised her violin, and this turned out to be the missing element. When she drew her bow, the note was like a bridge between islands of static and Paul could hear how it all fit together, the violin and the static and the shadowy underpinning of the bass guitar; it was briefly thrilling, then the girl lowered her violin and the music fell apart into its disparate components, and Paul found himself wondering once again how anyone listened to this stuff. Later, when the band was drinking at the bar, Paul waited for a moment when the violinist wasn’t talking to anyone and swooped in.

“Excuse me,” he said, “hey, I just wanted to tell you, I love your music.”

“Thanks,” the violinist said. She smiled, but in the guarded manner of extremely beautiful girls who know what’s coming next.

“It was really fantastic,” Paul said to the bass player, in order to confound expectations and keep the girl off balance.

“Thanks, man.” The bass player beamed in a way that made Paul think he was probably stoned.

“I’m Paul, by the way.”

“Theo,” the bass player said. “That’s Charlie and Annika.” Charlie, the keyboardist, nodded and raised his beer, while Annika watched Paul over the rim of her glass.

“Can I ask you guys kind of a weird question?” Paul wanted so badly to see Annika again. “I’m kind of new to the city, and I can’t find a place to go out dancing.”

“Just head down to Richmond Street and turn left,” Charlie said.

“No, I mean, I’ve been to a few places down there, it’s just hard to find anywhere where the music doesn’t suck, and I was wondering if you could maybe recommend . . . ?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Theo downed the last of his beer. “Yeah, try System Sound.”

“But it’s a hellhole on weekends,” Charlie said.

“Yeah, dude, don’t go on the weekends. Tuesday nights are pretty good.”

“Tuesday nights are the best,” Charlie said. “Where are you from?”

“Deepest suburbia,” Paul said. “Tuesday nights at System, okay, thanks, I’ll check it out.” To Annika, he said, “Maybe I’ll see you there sometime,” and turned away fast so as not to see her disinterest, which he felt like a cold wind on his back all the way to the door.

On the Tuesday after exams — three Cs, one C−, academic probation — Paul went down to System Soundbar and danced by himself. He didn’t really like the music, but it was nice to stand in a crowd. The beats were complicated and he wasn’t sure how to dance to them so he just kind of stepped back and forth with a beer in his hand and tried not to think about anything.

Wasn’t that the point of clubs? Annihilating your thoughts with alcohol and music?

He’d hoped Annika would be here, but he didn’t see her or the other Baltica people in the crowd. He kept looking for them and they kept not being there, until finally he bought a little packet of bright blue pills from a girl with pink hair, because E wasn’t heroin and didn’t count, but there was something wrong with the pills, or something wrong with Paul: he bit one in half and swallowed it, just the half, didn’t feel anything so he swallowed the other half with beer, but then the room swam, he broke out in a sweat, his heart skipped, and just for a second he thought he was going to die. The girl with the pink hair had vanished. Paul found a bench against the wall.|