Tuesday 29 September 2020

The Endtimes Revisited: Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel feels like a remake of Emily St. John Mandel's previous novel Station Eleven (2014), with the pandemic of the latter book replaced by the 2008 financial crisis as represented by a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. A seemingly significant difference is that Station Eleven is speculative fiction, whereas The Glass Hotel lies in the realm of the literary mainstream.

No matter how much I tried, though, and I tried, I couldn't ignore the doubling between the two books. I can't say too much without revealing their plots, but I will say this. The Glass Hotel contains two characters from the previous book: shipping company executives Leon and Miranda, the latter who is arguably the main character of Station Eleven. Leon gets more attention in the 2019 version as one of the people who suffers complete ruin at the hands of the novel's Madoff stand-in, Jonathan Alkaitis. Another character fills the role that Miranda plays in Station Eleven. Like her, Vincent Smith (named by her parents after Edna St. Vincent Millay) lucks herself into a luxurious life by virtue of her mismatched relationship with a wealthy man (Alkaitis), yet she feels "adrift" and "unmoored," two words that are key in characterizing the emotional states of many characters in both books, in the cocoon of this life.  Miranda funnells her passion into her graphic novel and into the isolation of the title's enwombing retreat for her fictional alter ego Dr. Eleven. For her part, Vincent takes five-minutes videos of the natural world, especially of the ocean of her childhood home of the coast of British Columbia and of the oceans she travels to as the trophy wife of Alkaitis. Standing in for Station Eleven is the Hotel Caiette, the hotel of glass that brings the major players of the plot together. Hotel Caiette constitutes another fragile place of stillness in the wilderness, but it also stands in for all the glass-bound towers that Vincent finds herself in as Alkaitis's fake trophy wife. 

In addition to these plot and character parallels are a similar structure and theme. For both novels, Mandel writes in fragments, and the changes in space and time between adjacent fragments often are marked by continents and decades. Her many characters cross paths, and in those crossings the books emphasize the interconnectedness of things and the ineffability of experienced time. The storytelling in The Glass Hotel is not chronologically straightforward, that is; but Mandel nevertheless has enough control of her material that I never got lost. Each character who is connected to Vincent and Alkaitis has a unique enough personality and narrative circumstance that confusing is difficult. The result of these well-controlled fragments is a narrative that drifts forwards and backwards in time while simultaneously revealing details that, once put in chronological order, depict a melancholic planet full of people whose sufferings are rarely inflected by any of the good things that happen to them. For Mandel's characters, decisions tend to lead to bad outcomes, but no character seems surprised by that downturn; or if a character is surprised, as Leon and his wife seem to be at first, they come to love the freedom that their ill fortunes have brought them. I am not sure of this doubling is conscious or not; I suspect it is, though why I am not sure.

When I say that the two books feel similar, I mean the emotion of melancholy possessed by characters who cannot escape their pasts and the sense of disorientation generated by the books' fragmented structure. When I read both books I had this same feeling. One emotion that the newest book lacks is Station Eleven's thriller elements in the post-pandemic world, but I did not believe that aspect of the earlier book. It seemed much too similar to elements of other postapocalyptic stories, such as the crazed warlord who with his murderous cult threatens the possibility of humans to resurrect their demolished civilizations. 

I liked the pre-pandemic part of Station Eleven much more. The Glass Hotel resembles most that pre-pandemic world, which is not less beholden to the cliches of many postapocalyptic stories. I didn't like Station Eleven that much, but I like The Glass Hotel. The similarity of the two novels, however, puts me off The Glass Hotel to some degree. I suspect I would have liked it more if I had read it first. 

Now that I have read three books, I can start to make comparisons. Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me is stylistically and narratively much different from Mandel's book and requires some effort in comparing the two. By contast, Seth's Clyde Fans, however, resembles Mandel's novel in its focus on  how the past affects the present and with a similar melancholy. 

At this point, I prefer Clyde Fans because of its greater philosophical intensity and closer examination of its fewer characters. But I have eleven more books to read, so I can't say more than this until I get through more, if not all, of them.

Saturday 26 September 2020

Caregiver Horrorshow: Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me

Cover of Watching You Without MeI classify this book as a psychological thriller of the type in which a dangerous person has entered the protagonist's house. In this book's case, the danger has entered the house because the protagonist has invited the danger inside, much like in some traditions of the vampire. Trevor, the danger, is not a literal vampire, but his neediness imitates the vampire's dependence on others for sustenance.

Trevor is a home care worker for Kelli, the developmentally-disabled older sister of the narrator, Karen. Karen and Kelli's mother Irene has died, and Karen must now look after her sister. At first Karen interprets the scope of this new responsability as mainly the finalization of Kelli's installation into a continuing care facility that Irene has already selected. Karen, however, must in the meantime navigate her life through newness such as the schedule of the health care workers who had been helping the ailing Irene with some of Kelli's needs, such as bathing her and taking her for a walk. Trevor is the person who has been walking Kelli, and it seems as though Kelli is fond of Trevor. 

Karen understands, slowly, that in many ways Trevor became a surrogate son. Karen left Nova Scotia years ago, and that departure represented the emotional distance that had been widening between Irene and Karen since adolescence. Karen resisted Irene's attempts at instilling her values of self-sacrifice and religious faith onto Karen. Teenaged Karen didn't view her mother as a saint but as someone who tried to impose moral perfection. After moving to Toronto, getting herself a career, a marriage, and a divorce, Karen returns home to face her mother's arguments all over again. Trevor is one of the people who sees Irene as a saint. Furthermore, he seems to have adopted her moral formula for life.

Trevor is not, it turns out, a saint. Karen sees this at first, but self-loathing kicks in, and she reinterprets her past as evidence of her inability to see the truth of things. Karen doesn't see Kelli as a burden, but she realizes that many people who offer help need help themselves. This understanding alters her view of people such as Trevor as well as Karen's old friend Jessica, now a real estate agent and insistently "with it" person who suffered a traumatic childhood. At the same time, though, Karen's revised view makes her vulnerable. Both Jessica and Trevor see this, and act accordingly.

What pleased me at the outset was the sense of humour, a black humour to be sure, but a well-considered humour given that, I imagine, caregivers experience things that demand the ability to appreciate the strange beauty of complications that arise, as they do for Karen because, for example, Kelli hates elevators and has been drinking too much pop. Along with the humour, tension arises from the obstacles Karen faces outside and especially inside her newly narrowed world. I couldn't put the book down, I must confess. However, it ends more or less the way I expected it to, and I felt cheated; I'm not a devotee of the thriller genre because I know how they end, and I generally stay away from the genre accordingly. Still, the ending is a bit unusual. Is Kelli, in the end, a manifestation of God?

Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me is the second novel I have read recently in which the author basically apologizes for the ending. The first was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. That book devotes many pages to its lament over reader expectations for a clear-cut ending since life never turns out that way. But people know that, no? My sense with Tartt's book is that Tartt may have wondered how to end the book, a fair enough question considering how long that book is and how long it took her to write it. Thankfully, Coady's version of this apologia is much shorter. Still, I didn't think the book needed to warn the reader that it may not end the way the reader would like. I consider an unusual ending to be a feature, not a flaw. As a result, Coady's book has more substance than other thrillers I have read.

Friday 18 September 2020

Seth's Clyde Fans: My Reading of Giller Prize Long-list Nominees


Although the book is thick, heavy, and encyclopedic in appearance, inside is an intimate depiction of a generation of salesmen and the creep through time of disillusion and decay. Set in Toronto from the 1950s to the late 1990s, Clyde Fans (Drawn & Quarterly, 2019) depicts the postwar ideal of optimism and growth that loomed over the reality of people who knew that they did not fit into this ideal. Abe Matchcard, owner and manager of his father's fan business, at first sees himself as an inheritor of the postwar dynamism and optimism modelled by his self-involved, bullying father. Abe's older brother Simon, by contrast, has cultivated an contemplative inner life at odds with Abe's gung-ho validation of commercial enterprise, consumer acquisitiveness, and search for material comfort at the expense of all else.

 The graphic novel never shows favour for this ideal. Clyde Fans begins with Abe wandering through his family home and soliloquizing about his past. At first he discusses salesmanship as though he has absorbed sincerely the self-help-style mantra of Always Be Closing. Soon, however, he drops the facade, which crumbles as images piles up of his home and its attached offices, scraps of paper littering the floor, stacks of piles, boxes of unsold fans stacked in storage, and cracks in the walls. Abe acknowledges his ill-suitedness to salesmanship and hints at the disorder in his family, beginning with his father and leading to Simon's disengagement from the practicalities of life and his attachment to their aging, disappointed mother and to the writing of a book about the novelty postcards he has collected since the 1950s.

As he states in the afterword, Seth wrote Clyde Fans, inspired by an actual deserted storefront for Clyde Fans, in installments over twenty years. Though his obsession with the subject remained steady, his drawing style changed, becoming blockier and heavier in its outlines. Nevertheless, what remains constant is the insistence on silence and distance as represented by the many wordless panels and the attention to the clean geometries of the city landscape, often presented in a birds-eye view or slightly lower. Throughout the colours are stark black, varieties of grey, and pale blues. When the Matchcards go to smaller towns and the countryside, the panels are less crowded and favour curves rather than straight lines. Wherever and whenever the plot leads, images repeat: birds, shadows falling across facades, three trees on a hill, a lighthouse, drops of liquid, and those scraps of paper lying in hallways, in office floors, on sidewalks.

The Matchcard brothers have the urge to burrow into the comfort of the past as protection not only from the present and the future but also from the most distasteful elements of the past. Abe admits that he came to this awareness late in life, whereas his brother has acknowledged this reality since boyhood. Simon, introverted, dreamy, and dissatisfied, laments the "impenetrable wall of time" that separates him from the past and from the past versions of himself. He learns to cope, at least some of the time, by constructing fantasies that, though not without their painfulness, demonstrate memory's malleability and the imagination's constructive power. Although the characters, and people in general perhaps, have a wall that separates past from present, narrative literature can move around those walls. The chronology skips forward and back. The book ends not with the chronological present but with Simon at his happiest moment. That he disavows this moment later in his life is not important to the texture of Clyde Fans. That moment exists, and the book treasures that moment for Simon by reinvoking the bittersweet vision that inspired it. 

Seth's graphic novel may remind people of the plays Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet and the 1968 documentary Salesman by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. In other words, Clyde Fans will not stoke the enthusiasm of anyone about to embark on a career in sales.

The book expresses a particular and peculiar personal vision, melancholic and obsessive of the past without sentimentality. Simon's attempts to make sense of life's disappointments arethe strongest part of the book, and I can't forget the sequences of images that form his visions and ratiocinations. I recommend this book.


This is the first of the fourteen 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist of  nominations that I plan to read this fall. I will devote one post per book. The Giller Prize opened its nominations to graphic novels for the first time this year, so Clyde Fans is competing with Canadian novels and short story collections. 

If I don't finsh reading the longlisted books before the announcement of the short list on October 5, I will skip to the shortlisted texts I have not yet read. The winner will be announced at a televised gala November 9 on CBC television and CBC Gem.

I have never tried to read all the Giller longlists. But I have recently finished reading all the books on my bookshelf, and I am doing this to sink me into contermporary writing after years of catching up with the past. I have a lot of reading to do. Better get at it.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Creativity Podcasts

I listen to a few podcasts regularly, but I thought I ought to boost my podcast consumption with respect to creativity. Here are some ones I like because they inspire me to take risks and because they pump up my fragile self-esteem.

WTF with Marc Maron. Maron has been podcasting from his garage since 2009. His guests tend to be fellow comedians, but occasionally he veers into other realms, such as when he famously had President Barack Obama as a guest. Maron has a philosophical bent, and he also has his guest speak about their origins and their creative processes, so I find his guests' commentary often inspires me to think about taking risks, something that comedians are forced to do every day.

Your Creative Push. Host Youngman Brown interviews people from all kinds of creative fields: writers, painters, musicians, small business owners, you name it. The goal is to encourage people to work on that project that they've always wanted to do but are waiting for something or someone to get out of their way. The podcast emphasizes bucking up creative people who have been struggling to achieve their dreams. Brown is a thorough interviewer, and he gets the most of out of the experiences of his guests.