The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

downloadI was diverted and entertained, which was what I was after. There are some insights, and some pretty writing. So, starting from a place of generally succeeding, I had two main issues with this novel.

First, it’s about Bernie Madoff, but it’s nominally about a Ponzi schemester named Jonathan Alkaitis. The fictional version is modeled so closely on the real story that it just kind of feels like cheating. If you’re going to write a novel about how the dynamics of the time and aspects of human nature allowed things like this to happen, invent an incident. If you’re going to write about about Bernie Madoff, write a book about Bernie Madoff. But when you import this many details, it’s neither here nor there.

Second, It’s trying to be too many things at once. At the beginning it seems like it’s going to be about the troubles of a drug-addicted young man who makes some terrible mistakes, but after a fairly deep dive into his psyche, he ends up being a peripheral character. Later, we get third-person-plural sections of “The Office Chorus” describing the collective experience of Alkaitis’s inside-track employees. The heroine, to the extent there is one, ultimately doesn’t have that much to offer; she ultimately exists primarily in a non-Ponzi-related concern with what happened to her mother, who disappeared in an apparent drowning when she was a child in a remote part of Canada. I appreciate the impulse to see many points of view in a story like this–how it would happen and how it would touch countless lives–but this one just feels disorganized. It has no shape. It’s not sure what it wants.

Maybe that’s an inherent hazard in writing a story everyone already knows; you can’t get your intrigue from what may happen. Maybe you need all these spinoffs and dead ends because otherwise there’s nothing new. But for my tastes, everything needs just a little more cohesion. Of course, now they’re making it into a TV series, which seems to me like a better place for this technique. I’ve read a couple of books like that lately; is the renaissance of TV driving the structure of new novels?

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