I'm having a curious reading experience: This week I began Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel, which tells the story of a financial con artist and the people in orbit around him. At the same time, I began watching HBO's Station Eleven, which is an adaptation of Mandel's previous, wildly successful novel about a pandemic that levels the human population, and the small societies of survivors who hang on. (I'd read Station Eleven years before, but had forgotten many of its details. And for what it's worth: The HBO adaptation is, so far, magnificent.)
Mid-week, I saw an episode of Station Eleven that includes a minor role for a character named Leon Prevant. The same day, I read a chapter of The Glass Hotel in which Leon Prevant appears.
The interesting thing isn't that the two novels share a character; it's that sharing a character means they share the same world...and the world of Station Eleven is one which depicts the utter collapse of civilization.
The Glass Hotel chapter in question takes place in 2005.
Station Eleven's viral apocalypse is, I think, unspecific about its timing.
A later scene in Hotel, which takes place in 2029, suggests that the world is still at that time "normal" enough for things like cocktail parties.
As I read Hotel, then, I'm reading with the understanding that every character in these pages is unaware that the end of the world is approaching, that they're living their last days and years. It's a wonderful experience, to know something this big about these characters, to have something so world-shakingly important to compare to their seemingly big problems. What would they do differently if they knew what was ahead? Anything?
However, it seems the author herself might have had other intentions. Here's a bit from an interview she gave to Brooklyn Based in March, 2020:
So in terms of the counterlives and the alternate worlds in your novels… Your characters imagine these alternate scenarios where, say, a disaster like the Georgia Flu doesn’t happen. Where does this fascination come from?
To be honest it was partly kind of wanting to cover my tracks in using the same characters from Station Eleven. When I was writing Station Eleven, I knew that I might wanna use a couple of those characters again. So, in Station Eleven, there’s a section, I think it’s one of the final post-apocalyptic chapters, where two characters are playing this game that they’ve been playing since childhood where they imagine alternate universes, including one where the flu didn’t happen. And I was trying to lay the groundwork there, to maybe be able to use characters like that again, without readers automatically expecting the Georgia Flu is about to arrive. I was trying to lay that groundwork a bit further in The Glass Hotel with Vincent, where she’s walking down the street and imagining a world where the Georgia Flu didn’t happen. So I guess I was trying to plant that as an idea in the reader’s mind. And therefore be able to use the same characters in a different universe.
I love novels.
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