A counterlife without the pandemic? Try the fictional take

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 28, 2020

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

In Emily St John Mandel’s ‘The Glass Hotel’, a young female protagonist, Vincent Smith, imagines multiple counterfactual histories, including one in which the swine flu “hadn’t been swiftly contained.” The omniscient narrator then notes: “She [Vincent] could only play this game for so long before she was overcome by a kind of vertigo and had to make herself stop.”

This is the clearest indication yet that Ms Mandel is still writing in the fictional universe of her 2014 career-defining blockbuster ‘Station Eleven’. That was a novel about a pandemic, one that flipped the switch on technology, leaving the few survivors to rediscover how to generate electricity and all the smartphones and credit cards parked in a museum in an abandoned airport.

But ‘The Glass Hotel’ is not plague fiction. It is not about pestilence per se, unless greed can be seen as a disease that afflicts those who aren’t inoculated against it. The story is basically about a massive Ponzi scheme and how it affects everyone, in some way.

New York financier Jonathan Alkaitis seems to be the beginning and the end of it all. He carries himself, Ms Mandel writes, with “the tedious confidence of all people with money…the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come to him”.

But is Alkaitis really the beginning and the end?

He, we learn, will die in prison. Vincent, who he pays to be his companion, will drown at sea.

‘The Glass Hotel’ has many lost beings and lonely images – wronged victims, a “ghost fleet” of empty container ships. As one reviewer mused about Ms Mandel’s abiding fascination for the alternative storyline: “…isn’t every moment – coiled with possibilities – its own ghost story? Isn’t every life a counterlife?”

It’s an interesting idea and one might justifiably consider it deeply and from every angle during the coronavirus pandemic, the intermittent lockdowns and the enforced isolation.

I just finished ‘The Glass Hotel’ and recommend it highly as the sort of absorbing, take-you-away-from-it-all story that will briefly allow Covid-19 to recede.