Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
Last Night in Montreal
The Singer’s Gun
The Lola Quartet
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2020 by Emily St. John Mandel
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
A few paragraphs of this narrative appeared, in a different but possibly recognizable form, as “Mr. Thursday,” a short story published by
(in partnership with Arizona State University) in 2017. “Mr. Thursday” was loosely based on a very early draft of this novel.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Mandel, Emily St. John, [date] author.
Title: The glass hotel : a novel / Emily St. John Mandel.
Description: First Edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.
9780525521143 (hardcover) |
9780525521150 (ebk) |
9781524711764 (open market)
: Mystery fiction.
53 2020 |
record available at
Ebook ISBN 9780525521150
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover photograph by Lawrence Sawyer/E+/Getty Images
Cover design by Abby Weintraub
For Cassia and Kevin
Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain—
Sweep me up.
Words scrawled on a window when I was thirteen years old. I stepped back and let the marker drop from my hand and still I remember the exuberance of that moment, that feeling in my chest like light glinting on crushed glass—
Have I risen to the surface? The cold is annihilating, the cold is all there is—
A strange memory: standing by the shore at Caiette when I was thirteen years old, my brand-new video camera cool and strange in my hands, filming the waves in five-minute intervals, and as I’m filming I hear my own voice whispering, “I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home,” although where is home if not there?
Where am I? Neither in nor out of the ocean, I can’t feel the cold anymore or actually anything, I am aware of a border but I can’t tell which side I’m on, and it seems I can move between memories like walking from one room to the next—
“Welcome aboard,” the third mate said the first time I ever boarded the
When I looked at him something struck me, and I thought,
I am out of time—
I want to see my brother. I can hear him talking to me, and my memories of him are agitating. I concentrate very hard and abruptly I’m standing on a narrow street, in the dark, in the rain, in a foreign city. A man is slumped in a doorway just across from me, and I haven’t seen my brother in a decade but I know that it’s him. Paul looks up and there’s time to notice that he looks terrible, gaunt and undone, he sees me but then the street blinks out—
1994 and 1999
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 humor. 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 C’s, 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.
“Hey, man, you okay? You okay?” Someone was kneeling in front of him. Some significant amount of time had passed. The crowd was gone. The lights had come up and the brightness was terrible, the brightness had transformed System into a shabby room with little pools of unidentifiable liquid shining on the dance floor. A dead-eyed older guy with multiple piercings was walking around with a garbage bag, collecting bottles and cups, and after the force of all that music the quiet was a roar, a void. The man kneeling in front of Paul was club management, in the regulation jeans/Radiohead T-shirt/blazer that club management always wore.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Paul said. “I apologize, I think I drank too much.”
“I don’t know what you’re on, man, but it doesn’t suit you,” the management guy said. “We’re closing up, get out of here.” Paul rose unsteadily and left, remembered when he got to the street that he’d left his coat at the coat check, but they’d already locked the door behind him. He felt poisoned. Five empty cabs cruised by before the sixth finally stopped for him. The cabbie was a proselytizing teetotaler who lectured Paul about alcoholism all the way back to campus. Paul wanted desperately to be in bed so he clenched his fists and said nothing until the cab finally pulled up to the curb, when he paid—no tip—and told the cabdriver to stop fucking lecturing him and fuck off back to India.
“Listen, I want to be clear that I’m not that person anymore,” Paul told a counselor at a rehab facility in Utah, twenty years later. “I’m just trying to be honest about who I was back then.”
“I’m from Bangladesh, you racist moron,” the cabdriver said, and left Paul there on the sidewalk, where he knelt carefully and threw up. Afterward he stumbled back to the dorm building, marveling at the scale of the disaster. Against all odds he had clawed his way up into an excellent university, and here it was only December of his first year and it was already over. He was already failing, one semester in. “You must gird yourself against disappointment,” a therapist had told him once, but he couldn’t gird himself against anything, that had always been the problem.
Fast-forward two weeks, past the nonevent of the winter holidays—his mother’s therapist had advised distance from her son, taking time for herself, and giving Paul a chance to be an adult, etc., so she’d gone to Winnipeg to be with her sister for Christmas and hadn’t invited Paul; he spent Christmas Day alone in his room and called his dad for an awkward conversation in which he lied about everything, just like old times—and all the way to December 28, the nadir of that dead week between Christmas and New Year’s, when he dressed up and walked back down to System Soundbar on another Tuesday night, hair slicked back, wearing a button-down shirt that he’d purchased specially. He was wearing the jeans he’d been wearing last time he was here and didn’t remember till he got to the club that the little packet of blue pills was still in a front pocket.
He walked into System and there were the Baltica people, Annika and Charlie and Theo, standing together at the bar. They must have just wrapped up a gig nearby. It was like a sign. Had Annika become more beautiful since he’d seen her last? It seemed possible. His university life was almost over but when he looked at her he could see a new version of reality, another kind of life he might lead. He felt that he was not, objectively speaking, a bad-looking individual. He had some talent in music. Maybe his past made him interesting. There was a version of the world wherein he dated Annika and was in many ways a successful person, even if he wasn’t cut out for school. He could get back into retail, take it more seriously this time and make a decent living.
“Look,” he told the counselor in Utah, twenty years into the future, “obviously I’ve had some time to think about this, and of course I realize that that line of thinking was insane and self-centered, but she was so beautiful, and I thought,
She’s my ticket out of this,
meaning my ticket out of feeling like a failure—”
It’s now or never,
Paul thought, and he approached the bar in a blaze of courage.
“Hey,” Theo said. “You. You’re that guy.”
“I took your advice!” Paul said.
“What advice?” Charlie asked.
“System Soundbar on Tuesdays.”
“Oh right,” Charlie said, “yeah, of course.”
“Good to see you, man,” Theo said, and Paul felt a flush of warmth. He smiled at all of them, with particular focus on Annika.
“Hi,” she said, not unkindly, but still with that irritating wariness, like she expected everyone who looked at her to ask her out, although of course that was exactly what Paul was planning to do.
Charlie was saying something to Theo, who leaned down to hear him. (Brief portrait of Charlie Wu: small guy with glasses and a generic office-appropriate haircut, dressed in a white button-down shirt with jeans, standing there with his hands in his pockets, and the light reflecting off his glasses so that Paul couldn’t see his eyes.)
“Listen,” Paul said, to Annika. She looked at him. “I know you don’t know me, but I think you’re really beautiful, and I wondered if you’d let me take you to dinner sometime.”
“No thank you,” she said. Theo’s attention had shifted from Charlie to Paul, and he was watching Paul closely, like he was worried that he might have to intercede, and Paul understood: their evening had been fine until Paul came along. Paul was the problem. Charlie was cleaning his glasses, apparently oblivious, nodding his head to the music as he polished the lens.
Paul forced himself to smile and shrug. “Okay,” he said, “no problem, no hard feelings, just figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.”