Emily St. John Mandel: “In America you are completely alone in the face of danger”

The Arthur C. Clarke winner reconstructs Bernie Madoff’s notorious multimillion-dollar scam case in her latest novel, ‘The Glass Hotel,’ and turns it into a fable about the ghosts of the past

Emily St. John Mandel was born in 1979 in a place called Merville, in British Columbia, Canada. At the age of eight he began to write poems and stories in a journal that, he remembers, was a beautiful blue. His mother had given it to him. At the time, the future Arthur C. Clarke winner and National Book Award finalist – that same year, 2015, and for a novel, Station Eleven, which today has something of a visionary – did not go to school. “My parents taught me at home. The schools in the area did not convince them, and they were very hippies, “he says. One of the fixed tasks of his peculiar homeschool was writing. “Every day I had to write a story or a poem,” he recalls. Something that he loved. “What appealed to me from the beginning of writing is that it was like having a world of my own where I didn’t have to relate to anyone other than myself. She was a very shy girl, ”she says.

She is sitting at her kitchen table in her home in New York. You have a collection of poems by Czeslaw Milosz at your fingertips. He says he was always drawn to the fantastic. “I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories and speculative fiction,” he recalls. What he did not imagine is that he would end up placing his name among the most prominent of those who have dedicated themselves to imagining an undesirably possible future. Not that anyone would rate what makes a perfect cross between what Raymond Chandler and JG Ballard did. “What interested me was what would happen next. I wanted to write about what the world might look like 15 or 20 years after civilization was practically extinct, and I thought a pandemic would be ideal, ”he says. Talk about Station Eleven, his award-winning novel about a post-tech society.

Having written about it, how did the early news about the pandemic fit in? “This has been a very difficult year, but I can’t help but feel lucky, because my main problem is that I can’t see my family. My mother lives in Canada and whenever I imagine myself going to visit her, I think I’m going to catch COVID on the way and infect her entire small town upon arrival. So I have not seen my parents or my brothers for almost a year. I miss them so much, but I can’t complain. My husband and I work from home, and we take care of our four-year-old daughter, who we are not taking to school because it does not seem safe to us. We have set up a small network with other families and we share a babysitter, and we ourselves do not leave that bubble group that we have formed in order not to take risks ”, he says.

Added to all this is the non-resignation of Donald Trump after losing the presidential elections. “We are living in a very strange time in the United States,” he says. The abuse of power is something you cannot bear. His latest novel, The glass hotel (Ático de los Libros) is about precisely that, and how shared crime is less crime. That is to say, how, for example, the followers of Donald Trump can feel encouraged and completely legitimized to do all kinds of damage wherever they want, as long as they are not alone. “What I found fascinating about the Bernie Madoff case – the multi-million dollar scam case on which his novel is based – is the way crime was normalized to the point where cheating was a job for his employees. They came to the office every morning and did nothing but steal, and it seemed to them that they were doing the right thing, or that it was what they had to do, “he says.

The investor, banker and all-powerful Wall Street man Bernie Madoff was sentenced in 2009 to 150 years in prison for defrauding a countless number of investment groups, companies, charities and even individuals using the so-called Ponzi scheme, that is, a type of pyramid scheme in which the scammed inadvertently end up scamming others, and therefore becomes so undetectable that it can work for years, as in the case of Madoff, who embezzled more than 68,000 millions of dollars. In the novel, Madoff’s corrupt spirit is embodied by Jonathan Alkaitis, owner, among many other things, almost infinite, of the Hotel Caiette, a sort of crystal palace located on wild Vancouver Island that can only be accessed by boat. The rebellious and tormented Vincent works there as a waitress.

Customers of the luxurious five-star Caiette are not interested in the real world at all. They want to see the wild from the safety and comfort of a room with a view and a well-stocked bar cabinet. “The tragedy of Vincent is that despite being a very intelligent girl, she does not know what to do with her life. Sometimes happens. And it’s horrible when it happens. That is why the relationship she establishes with Jonathan is so strange, ”says the writer. Because Jonathan, already entering the mire of impending doom, needs to give an image of stability – and for this he needs, he believes, a wife – while she wants to escape from there. “Their relationship has something mercenary about it, yes, but at the same time it turns into a form of friendship,” says St. John Mandel. The antagonist is Paul, Vincent’s bitter and angry brother, who “thinks the world owes him something.”

“Believing that the world owes you something turns your life, by default, into something horrible, and turns you into someone who cannot think of anything other than himself. Paul thinks he knows his sister, but he has no idea “, adds the writer, who plays with the structure in the plot trying to imitate the disorderly structure of The cloud atlas, by David Mitchell. Traveling from the past to the future present of the protagonists. “It was a complicated book to write,” he admits. Also because of what is wild about it. Because it could be said that Vincent has something – and not just the name – of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rebelliousness. “Without a doubt, his life beyond all convention is an inspiration for the character, and for me,” confesses the author. But also about the wildness of life in the United States that scams like Madoff’s reveal. “In America you are completely alone in the face of danger,” he says.

It refers to the massively catastrophic nature of a scam such as the one posed by the novel – which uses it as a vehicle to tell, above all, the story of Vincent, and his relationship with his absent mother, and how complicated it is to make one’s way into a world they don’t expect you to – for a huge number of people who are left in the gutter unable to ask anyone for help. “I’m from Canada, but I’ve lived long enough in America to be aware that, yes, there are a lot of opportunities here, but whatever happens, you’re going to be alone. There is no type of social network, so losing your savings in the way that Madoff’s victims lost them can be catastrophic “, considers the writer, who, when she has to talk about teachers, not about crime but about literary , four come to mind: “Dan Chaon, Jennifer Egan, Irene Nemirovsky and Raymond Chandler.”


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